Silk Road treats Orchestra Hall to high-energy show

Yo-Yo Ma is back in town, spreading his gospel of social betterment through musical performance, outreach, education and cross-cultural dialogue. While in Chicago, the cellist and Chicago Symphony Orchestra creative consultant is holding to his usual, dervish pace. He took time out from his enlightened crusade long enough to join with other members of his Silk Road Ensemble for a concert Saturday night at Orchestra Hall.

This marked the first performance Ma and friends — a musical collective embodying multicultural harmony — had given in Chicago since 2007, when the CSO joined with other city arts institutions to host a seasonlong residency by the Silk Road Ensemble. The 16 musicians sounded eager to make up for lost time Saturday, presenting an invigorating program of their signature, East-meets-West repertory, including a new piece, "Sacred Signs," by the Uzbek composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky.

The Yanov-Yanovsky was the longest and, in some respects, most compelling work on a slick program in which amplification, lighting and visual projections complemented the megawatt virtuosity of this international assemblage of musicians.

"Sacred Signs" had its world premiere about a week before in North Carolina; this was its second performance anywhere. Its 10 connected sections take their inspiration from elements in Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," the revolutionary ballet that is celebrating its centennial this season. There are no direct quotations, but similarities of texture and rhythmic procedure posit links to the past.

The music speaks in a tongue at once ancient and modern, Western and Eastern, assigning soloistic material to 13 musicians. A mournful melody evoking primitive antiquity and played on the shakuhachi (Japanese flute) serve as a structural bookend. Slow, atmospheric sections give way to sections pulsing with intricate, driving rhythmic activity and the exotic colors of pipa (Chinese lute), tabla (Indian drums) and metallic percussion.

The visual projections mixed imagery of the natural world with blurred footage of dancers executing bits of what appeared to be the original Nijinsky choreography for "Rite of Spring." Running more than an hour, "Sacred Signs" could stand some trimming, but the ingenuity of its craftsmanship and explosive energy of the performance held one's attention.

Another piece, Suite from "Book of Angels," comprises arrangements by four Silk Road members of pieces by the avant-garde composer John Zorn. Its sinuous melodies and insistent rhythms gave each musician his or her own solo turn amid the group jam. Cristina Pato got to send the piercing wails of the gaita (Iberian bagpipe) through the hall before the suite concluded in a joyous, high-decibel whoop.

Silk Road violinist Colin Jacobsen's "Atashgah," inspired by an ancient fire temple outside the Iranian city of Isfahan, represents an homage to the astonishing skills of his colleague Kayhan Kalhor, whose kamancheh (Persian fiddle) drove the ensemble of five strings and hand drum. The poetic piece moved in gentle waves of melody over broad fields of slowly shifting harmony.

Rounding out the program was "Playlist for an Extreme Occasion" by jazz pianist Vijay Iyer, one of more than 70 works Silk Road has commissioned. Here the bagpipes and sheng, a Chinese mouth organ played by the animated Wu Tong, sparked wildly pulsing ostinatos peppered by bent pitches and spicy discords. Iyer's riot of jazzy, interlocking rhythms and flashing colors was briefly interrupted by a gentle tune played on the piano. It sounded like nothing so much as ethnic Erik Satie. Sometimes quiet charm can trump high energy.

jvonrhein@tribune.com

Twitter @jvonrhein

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