15 Mar 2019

Review: Silk Road Ensemble at the Auckland Arts Festival 2019

From Upbeat, 12:49 pm on 15 March 2019

Silkroad Ensemble's world fusion feast delights audience but did it go too easy on the spice?

Silkroad Ensemble

Silkroad Ensemble Photo: Liz Linder Photography

Founded by Yo-Yo Ma, the Silkroad Ensemble has been famous in the field for over twenty years and they have finally brought their own brand of cross-cultural musical fusion to New Zealand.

This was a very slick and beautifully performed 90 minutes of music. The musicianship was impeccable and the audience loved the group. I think they will play up a storm at WOMAD and there will be much dancing during the livelier percussive driven pieces. There is a variety of instruments from the Chinese sheng to the Galician bagpipes by way of tabla, bass, viola and percussion. And singer Nora Fischer’s warm soprano added to the mix especially during a moving arrangement of Ravel’s Kaddish from his 'Deux Melodies Hebraique'. The concert opened with a stirring duet/duel between Cristina Pato on gaita (bagpipes) and Wu Tong on suona which was funny and sensuous. The rapport between the ensemble’s members was apparent and they improvised and jammed with joy and relish throughout the evening to the audience’s delight.

The Silkroad Ensemble

The Silkroad Ensemble Photo: Supplied

The music was from a variety of traditions and composers such as John Zorn and the arrangements and instrumentations were varied. The Migrations suite built on traditional Galician music and then segued into Venezuelan rhythms with jazz and Dvorak in the mix to illustrate the ideas of journeys, intermix and immigration. The spoken introductions by the musicians as well as the music itself dwelt on the beauty, strength and power of cultural crossings and migration. These ideas particularly sit well in this country given our own history and the audience showed real and warm appreciation for the Ensemble’s ideals and music. 

But in some ways this concert left me a little unsatisfied. There was a certain sameness and blandness about the music. The problem with fusion food (and world music) can be that the spices get left out so as not to offend or frighten consumers. At times the concert seemed to be a series of carefully posed musical Instagram selfies or postcards from a clichéd world destination bucket list. It was charming and warm and polite and inclusive but I would have liked more dirt and grit and fire. For me it lacked difference and rendered all the varied instruments, styles and sounds into a something like sonic butter chicken. A tamed exoticism that would make nice dinner music.

These are very accomplished musicians who played with joy and energy.  Some items were utterly moving and there were exhilarating improvisations and performances along the way. The audience members loved the show and the Ensemble did a hilarious vocal/drum piece as an encore that took in rap and imitated scratching. I just wished at times that there was more of a sense of the rawness, the dangers, the smells, the tastes and the wild variety of the original Silk Road.

  • Grammy winners Silk Road in NZ for the first time