Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Music Making: Weaving the Ethereal

Last Sunday night, I attended a performance at the Esplanade by "Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble". As part of the Silk Road Project travelling round the world and to which Yo-Yo Ma is founder and Artistic Director, this concert was a commendable effort to both entertain and educate about traditional Eastern music that sprung up along the Silk Road and also music inspired by these Eastern roots. This is but my humble, little review of the performance.



This world-renowned cellist hardly needs introduction. However, while his current achievements of 15 Grammy Awards, 50 released albums, and a multi-faceted music career of crossovers and collaborations are undoubtedly impressive, Yo-Yo Ma is more likely to be remembered for his genuine and unassuming personality, and a winning, effervescent smile.

As I watched him move onstage with cello in hand, under the intense gaze of an expectant audience and the immense weight of his very own reputation, nothing about him spoke of arrogance or pompousness. Instead, from a slightly hunched and relaxed stride to a navy blue business suit (as opposed to the typical musician's black tuxedo, regal with bow-tie and tails) to his familiar circular-rim glasses to an intelligent and upbeat voice, this man's aura was one of sincerity and unpretentiousness.

"...music has the ability to transcend space and time...
I have to confess, I scoffed internally at his initial words for this phrase is so clichéd and hackneyed, it wheezes and flaps like a leaky balloon every time it's blown in public. Even reading the programme booklet made me snicker silently.

"Said Ma, 'As we interact with unfamiliar musical traditions, we encounter voices that are not exclusive to one community. We discover transnational voices that belong to one world.'"
But as I sat through the performance, my jadedness at music-making (narrow and unwarranted for an amateur musician who was hardly part of the local music scene) was thrown out and replaced instead with a revived hope and optimism towards music, and an ear more open towards Chinese musical instruments. Never have I heard and seen someone pour out so much of his heart and soul into... simple, long notes; it was an inspiring reminder of how music really has to extend far beyond the notes we see on music sheets.

Ethnomusicology, a dirty word to some because it reeks of fusion (aka new age hybridism of culturally inspired elements that is intended to challenge and tease in a curiously refreshing manner). We've all heard it before: East meets West, European tradition infused with Asian elements etc. But far from feeling scandalized at my enjoyment of music mainstream enough for the masses, my interest and curiosity really were piqued about the music, its origins - the very objective that the Silk Road Project has set out to achieve - and even my very own roots. I reckon the success of this project is attributed not so much to Yo-Yo Ma's award-winning playing but, to a large part, his name and credibility as a carrying vessel.

At times the evening's music was minimalist, in terms of both content and instrumentation, but it was captivating nonetheless. I was instantly mesmerized by the ethereal quality present in the opening piece, Tryst, a love song between a courtesan and a scholar/poet. While the oboe's main theme evoking images of a wailing woman was refreshingly haunting, when the Kayagum performer, garbed in traditional Korean costume, really began singing and wailing, it was utterly forlorn and poignant. Such is the power of the human voice.

The other piece that completely enthralled me was the Mugam-Sajahy for String Quartet. A surreal sense enveloped the darkened stage with lights focusing only on the players standing at both sides of the stage and Yo-Yo Ma, seated in the center, both beginning and ending with a two note, heartbeat-like ostinato. This simple theme softly beckoned and yet, under the weaving of Ma's artistry and expert movements, morphed and danced. As three other voices gradually joined in, I found myself initially at a loss at which player to look at and which voice to focus on. Then I simply looked up, listened, and slowly realized my interpretation of this arrangement: lost, individual voices from afar searching, finding, and finally meeting. Other antics such as extremely vigorous playing and dramatizing the music by moving deliberately across the stage added to the theatrical feel of this performance.

The evening finally climaxed when the entire Silk Road Ensemble gathered for a final, boisterious encore - their unofficial theme song whose title frustrates my online search. I had watched them perform the same piece on TV, but this live performance was simply magical. Synergy (another hackneyed word) and pure simple fun - two rare and elusive elements in classical musical performances - were definitely alive and kicking onstage.

I am, once again, a music lover.

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