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Moseying Down China’s Silk Road

December 30, 2008

Yo-Yo Ma’s and his Silk Road Project have come up with a new CD featuring a host of young performers supported by the Chicago Symphony. Titled Traditions and Transformations, the disc includes two standard works, Ernest Bloch’s Schelomo and Prokofiev rambunctious Scythian Suite, Op. 20, plus two first recordings, Byambasuren Sharav’s Legend of Herlen (2000), and Lou Harrison’s final work, his Pipa Concerto (1997). It’s quite a spread.

That Ma would play an outstanding Schelomo could pretty much be taken for granted, but he did more than that. I can not say I’ve encountered a more brooding or dramatic version. He makes the rhapsodic solo meditations eloquently tasteful, applying rubato to emphasize their emotionalism (listen online). Then too, he has the young Peruvian rising star conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya, once assistant to Esa-Pekka Salonen in Los Angeles, supporting him with the Chicago Symphony at it’s brilliant best. The emphasis in on projecting the tragedy of Biblical Israel’s struggles. This alone is worth the price of the disc.

Fortunately, there more. Pipa (Chinese lute) virtuoso Wu Man plucks the strings off Harrison’s Concerto, with the CSO again conducted by Harth-Bedoya. What a fun piece this is. It’s laid out in four, unconventional, virtuoso movements: an opening Allegro (listen online), a suite of four brief dance pictures (in place of a Scherzo), a slow movement (listen online), and a final lively dance movement (listen online.

Harrison’s musical language is tonal, perfumed with simple folk aromas, but it is all done in so refreshingly original a way that the piece is a major find. The concerto reeks of sincerity as well as craftsmanship. It deserves repertory status, which I expect it to eventually attain, provided pipa players of Man’s quality can be found.

Composer Sharav is something akin to a Mongolian Bartók. He employs the native epic chant style, called the “long song,” and sung here by another exceptional artist, Khongorzul Ganbaatar. She’s accompanied by Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble: piano, three trombones, three percussionists, and Ma playing a morin khuur — a bowed Mongolian string instrument with a range approximating that of the Western viola.

The title comes from an ode on a legend about the Herlen river, a waterway as important to Mongolians as the Ganges is to Indians. But don’t be put off by the seeming exoticism. This is a fine work, only 11 minutes long, which I found profoundly moving (listen online). Ganbaatar’s expressive voice includes a wide rang of vocal technique, as she warbles tremolos and 17th-century type trillos (that is, many repeats of one tone on a single syllable). It all sounds at once ancient and throughly modern.

Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite, conducted by Alan Gilbert, employs a giant orchestra, and comes from his first attempt at a ballet, Ala and Lolly. It’s a violent score, for a scenario about barbaric Black Sea tribes. Diaghilev rejected it for his Ballet Russes as only a mock Rite of Spring, which it was. I don’t know that it’s ever been staged. Prokofiev extracted four sections for his suite, which ends with a gigantic sunburst of sound (listen online).

He conducted the American premiere with the CSO, and it was also that orchestra which made the first recording back in the late 1940s. Until this release, it remained the prime version. Under Gilbert, conductor designate of the New York Philharmonic, we finally have a topper. Then, too, the sonics of the disc are superb. Only have a care as to how you set the volume level, or the Prokofiev score might blow out your speakers. To quote an old Tircuit cliché, this disc is highly recommended.

Heuwell Tircuit is a composer, performer, and writer who was chief writer for Gramophone Japan and for 21 years a music reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle. He wrote previously for Chicago American and the Asahi Evening News.