Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble is the thinking man’s groove band. Playing to a packed house of nearly 3,000 people at E.J. Thomas Hall in Akron on Thursday night, the group served up a spicy mix of players and music from the legendary trade route with exotic instrumentation, virtuoso solos and a distinctly modern backbeat.
The Ensemble is a collective of 50 musicians and 40 composers from more than 20 countries that Yo-Yo Ma assembles for occasional tours and recording projects. He is currently traveling with a caravan of 14 players that includes several world music stars: Kayhan Kaylor on kamancheh, a Persian spiked fiddle; Sandeep Das on tabla, an Indian drum; and Cristina Pato, a classically trained pianist who doubles on the gaita, a Galician bagpipe that she handles with the panache of a rock star.
The program included a number of pieces written for the Ensemble, starting with the opening warmup number, Side In Side Out by the group’s shakuhachi (Japanese flute) player, Kojiro Umezaki, which featured an intricate duet by Umezaki and Yang Wei (on pipa, a Chinese lute). Atashgah, by violinist Colin Jacobsen (who also plays in the Brooklyn Rider string quartet), gave Kaylor a chance to craft a haunting solo. And jazz pianist Vijay Iyer contributed Playlist for an Extreme Occasion, an extended jam in which Pato was mesmerizing, starting on the piano and segueing to the gaita to trade some tasty licks with Wei.
Not all of the selections worked as well. A suite of Roma (gypsy) songs was well-informed and smartly played, but lacked the fervor that characterizes true Romani music. A narration of the Japanese fable Tsuru no Ongaeshi (Repayment of the Crane) would be better for a children’s concert, especially with Yo-Yo Ma using the improv accompaniment to demonstrate the many things you can do with a cello – bow the strings, tap them, pluck them, even knock on wood. And a selection from John Zorn’s Book of Angels was more interesting for individual flourishes than group execution, though its clap-along energy carried over to a brief encore featuring a spirited duet by Kaylor and Das.
In a sense, the Ensemble is too erudite for its own good. The musicians are brilliant, the music deep enough to warrant pages of program notes, and the playing finely crafted – but it doesn’t swing. It’s too polite, like white people trying to sing gospel. Still, this is a small complaint about an ad hoc group that makes the esoteric accessible to mainstream audiences, and takes great pride and joy in their performances. For serious music fans, the opportunity to see so many world-class players onstage together is reason enough to join the celebration.