Tuesday 20 March 2018

Follow the mellow Silk Road with Yo-Yo and his cello

George Hamilton

One of the funnier side-effects of coming out as a fan of classical music is that I'm taken for some kind of expert. I enjoy the flattery -- who wouldn't?

I've been happy to help when colleagues have sought advice on appropriate music to accompany our programming. But coming up with answers hasn't exactly been the application of rocket science.

When the subject of something with a Chinese flavour to introduce our Olympics coverage arose, and all eyes around the table fixed on me, I simply plumped for a personal favourite, a CD I found on a relatively recent rack raid in the US, where a new release by Yo-Yo Ma caught my eye.

Yo-Yo Ma is one of the world's greatest classical cellists, born in 1955 to Chinese parents -- a conductor and a singer -- who were living in Paris. He was already learning the instrument when his family moved to New York while he was still a child. He was performing for President John F Kennedy when he was only seven.

Besides travelling the regular route from concert hall to recording studio, his artistic journey has taken him down other roads. Some 10 years ago, Yo-Yo Ma established the Silk Road Project, an initiative to promote multicultural artistic collaboration. The historic Silk Road was a vast network of trade routes that stretched from Japan in the East to ancient Rome in the West and lasted for 1,500 years, until the advent of the sailing ship opened up the seas to commercial transport.

Yo-Yo Ma's idea was to bring together musicians and composers from the countries and cultures through which the Silk Road passed. This would create a kind of musical fusion, a marriage of cultural themes and traditional melodies and rhythms from the Silk Road lands, what he refers to as "single and intersecting arts traditions". Pushing back boundaries has long been a favourite theme of Maestro Ma, who's constantly seeking new ways of communicating with his audience.

This reached its apogee in a collaboration in Chicago in which the city's Symphony Orchestra was central. A series of celebration concerts with Yo-Yo Ma's group of musicians, the Silk Road Ensemble, was the culmination of their efforts, and from recordings, an album entitled New Impossibilities was released just 12 months ago.

It was this that I suggested to the group planning our Olympics coverage, and they plumped for a Chinese piece on the CD, which had been premiered at the concerts.

Ambush from Ten Sides is based on an ancient melody which is the musical account of an epic battle between the two kingdoms of Han and Chu.

It's dramatic music, it's very different, it features traditional instruments, as well as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and from its themes our team chose the various musical strands that accompany the Olympics coverage.

Ambush from Ten Sides is just one of eight exciting departures in the collection, which range from thrilling Arabian rhythms to the pizzicato of the pipa, the pear-shaped Chinese lute.

New Impossibilities is available on Sony Classics, SK10319.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm each Saturday morning at 1030.


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