Well, it looked like someone was feeling right at home in the Bluegrass.
In contrast to the suit-and-tie formality adopted for a Wednesday concert in Richmond, Yo-Yo Ma walked onstage at the Norton Center for the Arts last night in Danville proudly wearing a Centre College sweatshirt. But then again, the acclaimed cellist and artistic director of the Silk Road Ensemble has made a career out of the fascination he has shown for his surroundings. Does that mean the expansive stylistic reach Ma has helped establish for the group over the past 12 years may soon encompass bluegrass? Unlikely. He has other groups that can do that. Instead, Ma and the full 15 member Silk Road group closed out its regional stay by making the Centre crowd feel very much a part of its ever enlarging musical universe.
Roughly half of the program differed from the Richmond concert. Instead of opening with the stark, ancient voice of the oriental sheng, as was the case on Wednesday, last night’s performance ignited the full group all at once with the regal orchestral sweep of Kojiro Umezaki’s Side In Side Out that revolved around the positively enchanted Eastern percussive colors Sandeep Das created on tabla. Strings were then pushed to the forefront with Atashgah, a piece composed by one Silk Road member (violinist Colin Jacobsen) as a vehicle for another (Kayhan Kalhor on the Persian kamancheh).
But the big addition was a second Umezaki piece, Tsuru no Ongaeshi (Repayment from a Crane), a folk tale that brought Ma and percussionist Mark Suter front and center. But even the elegiac accents and percussive jabs created by the group leader played a secondary role to Kojiro Umezaki, who narrated the story of rescue and gratitude but also fortified the trio work with a light but very commanding lead on the shakuhachi flute.
The world colors were just as bounteous on works repeated from Wednesday, from the giddy vocal blasts on Galician bagpipes by Cristina Pato to the endlessly fascinating sounds on the Chinese pipa by Yang Wei that regularly mimicked dulcimer and harp with a sound infinitely more sagely.
Ma literally got the last note in – a single beat of mallet on a huge stage left drum. As a coda, it seemed unplanned, especially to other ensemble members. But the effect was the same – a trigger of smiles that reflected a sense of prime global playfulness.