The chapel is hushed, but a strange energy emits from the benches. Awestruck students turn to their peers, jaws dropping and heads shaking. Professors, parents, and alumni revel in their luck. From center stage, a sound erupts, traveling to listeners’ ears and burrowing into their hearts. It’s the sound the Chinese sheng, a mouth organ. Simultaneously majestic and meek, the sound transports audience members to sublimity. They forget who they are, where they came from, their school worries, their bouts with friends. They only know the music. They are the music.
This reaction is exactly what The Silk Road Ensemble seeks to produce.
On Tuesday, Oct. 15, The Silk Road Ensemble, a group of about 15 musicians from different cultural and musical backgrounds, performed at Cole Chapel as part of the Loser ’42 Musical Series. The artistic director, Yo-Yo Ma, performed at President Obama’s inauguration in 2008 and the ensemble celebrated its 15th anniversary this year. The ensemble’s presence at Wheaton was welcome, not only because President Crutcher is a fellow cellist, but also because the project revealed connections between various disciplines and cultures, a practice Wheaton knows well.
The namesake of the ensemble is the Silk Road trade route, which promoted cultural interaction through regions of the Asian continent, ultimately connecting the West and the East. The Silk Road continues to be a modern metaphor for cultural exchange. The ensemble itself is very collaborative, as each member brings their own experiences to the music.
The ensemble is not only a musical group, either. The Silk Road Project, as it is branded, also integrates arts and education through Silk Road Connect, inspiring students and teachers to make connections across all areas of their lives and studies.
“The arts, culture and humanities give us perspective, and the capacity for empathy and humility,” said Yo-Yo in the 26th annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy. “In a world of seven billion people and more than 200 countries, our problems will not be solved when we have a looming empathy deficit.”
Cristina Pato, who plays the bagpipes and the piano, worded her thoughts similarly. “The beauty of the combination of two languages – world music, which was mostly an oral tradition that is very much connected to the people, and Western music, which was another kind of tradition – makes this project very powerful in trying to bring all the values that are implicit in music to the table, like generosity and curiosity, and especially passion.”
Audience members could certainly see that passion on stage. Every member successfully communicated their love of music. Cristina thrusted with her gaita, a Spanish bagpipe; Kojiro Umezaki swayed with his shakuhachi, a Chinese flute; and Mike Block lifted his cello and danced with it.
“We’re not necessarily dealing with specific issues as much as we’re dealing with human emotions, and how people find passion or find other emotions like sadness or transcendence,” said Block. “I think those are the feelings that everyone can relate to. I think music has that power and can tap into it.”
Since the beginning of the concert, The Silk Road Ensemble impressed but did not intimidate. Yo-Yo Ma said that Jessica Hart, a graduate from Wheaton College in 2007, now works for the Project and that he’s very grateful for her help. He also shared a story about one of the students who helped out with the show saying, “The last time you performed here, none of us were born!” Ma said it was high time they returned.
Nick Straniere ’14, the student from the story, got a behind-the-scenes look at the ensemble. He helped move their equipment and was a bouncer during rehearsals.
“When they were rehearsing, they were just having a good time with each other, joking around,” he said. “It was a very silly, fun environment.”
The set at the concert included a wide range of genres, from traditional klezmer to hard rock and from smooth jazz to Chinese opera. The most memorable performances were solos, such as Shane Shanahan’s vocal and body percussion in “Taranta Project” and several instrumentalists’ fills in Vijay Iyer’s “Playlist for an Extreme Occasion,” which tabla player Sandeep Daas described as a musical recipe mixed with new spices every performance.
The ensemble members surprised and excited the audience with their innovative approaches to music. Throughout the entire concert, there was not one genre represented that did not interact with another. The Silk Road Ensemble’s performance at Cole Chapel was such a success that audience members left with a sense of both completion and continuation. This concert will certainly be talked about for years to come.
Check out The Silk Road Project online at thesilkroadproject.org and look for their new CD and DVD celebrating their 15th anniversary called “A Playlist Without Borders and Live from Tanglewood