RICHMOND — The sounds that best defined the tone, mood and invention of Wednesday night’s remarkable global music summit by the Silk Road Ensemble at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond bookended the program. Curiously, neither instance featured the group’s star chieftain, Yo-Yo Ma.
The first occurred at the beginning of the show-opening Silk Road Suite with Hu Jianbing playing the sheng, a Chinese free-reed instrument that looked like a handheld pipe organ. Though distinctly Asian in heritage, the music Jianbing summoned sounded positively medieval, recalling the medieval European moan of a hurdy gurdy.
The segment was indicative of the program that followed. The Silk Road Ensemble’s inspiration, instrumentation and sometimes even intonation seemed centuries old. Yet the full repertoire was either composed or arranged within the past 12 years. As such, Arabic rhythms, Turkish folk melodies, Gypsy flourishes, contemporary jazz phrasing, and even flirtations with the avant-garde had their say during the evening, the first of the ensemble’s two Central Kentucky concerts this week (it played Centre College’s Norton Center for the Arts on Thursday). But the result was a sound that skipped across continental (and cultural) borders as readily as it did musical genres.
The second instance came during the encore, when tabla player Sandeep Das improvised one on one with Kayhan Kalhor on the kamancheh, a small, upright Persian instrument played with a bow. A considerable portion of the Silk Road Ensemble’s music was built around strings and percussion; this duet served as both a concert distillation and summary. It was also, in simpler terms, a positively exuberant display.
Strings and percussion dominated, but there were times — like during the opening display of the sheng — when other sounds were incorporated. Leading that charge was Cristina Pato, who entered singing a startling, operatic Galician melody and later belted away on a bagpipe called a Galician gaita with rock-star vigor. She also mediated between the string and percussion camps by adding sparse, icy piano colors to the brilliantly titled Vijay Iyer jazz cavalcade Playlist for an Extreme Occasion.
What was perhaps most intriguing about the performance was the role played by artistic director Yo-Yo Ma. The internationally acclaimed cellist and musical journeyman was unquestionably Silk Road’s marquee name, but he purposely downplayed his role in the concert.
His only real solo came late in the program during the introduction to a three-piece suite from John Zorn’s Book of Angels. It was lovely as it was brief. Framed by the rest of the group’s multicultural string section, Ma’s playing was powerfully emotive and full of striking clarity. But the suite quickly moved on. The Silk Road Ensemble’s world music — much like the world itself, it seemed — was constantly turning.
Still, Ma’s animated presence was undeniable, from the rich playfulness that fueled Turceasca (the concluding piece in the Silk Road Suite) to the performance finale that had him forsaking his cello to add percussion and a bounteous electric smile to the world party that unfolded merrily around him.
The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma performs again tonight with a different program at the Norton Center for the Arts, 600 West Walnut St. in Danville (7:30 p.m.; $65-$105). Call (877) 448-7469 or go towww.nortoncenter.com.