A Playlist Without Borders (CD review)

Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. Sony Masterworks 88883 71092 2.

Remarkably, as of this writing the Silk Road Ensemble has been in business for some fifteen years.  How is that possible? I just reviewed their first album only...some fifteen years ago. Anyway, as you probably know, and quoting from their Web site, “Inspired by the cultural traditions of the historical Silk Road, the Silk Road Project is a catalyst promoting innovation and learning through the arts. Our vision is to connect the world’s neighborhoods by bringing together artists and audiences around the globe.”

They are “an internationally minded performing arts nonprofit with cultural and educational missions to promote innovation and learning through the arts. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma founded the Project in 1998 taking inspiration from the historical Silk Road trading routes and using the Silk Road as a modern metaphor for sharing and learning across cultures, art forms and disciplines.”

Further, “The Silk Road Ensemble draws together distinguished performers and composers from more than 20 countries in Asia, Europe and the Americas. Since the Ensemble formed under the artistic direction of Yo-Yo Ma in 2000, these innovative artists have eagerly explored contemporary musical crossroads. Their approach is experimental and democratic, founded on collaboration and risk taking, on continual learning and sharing. Members explore and celebrate the multiplicity of approaches to music from around the world. They also develop new repertoire that responds to the multicultural reality of our global society.”

There have been up to sixty members of the Silk Road Ensemble, but most of them do not work together at the same time. The lineup of musicians on the current album, A Playlist Without Borders, includes Kinan Azemeh, clarinet; Jeffrey Beecher, bass; Mike Block, cello and voice; Shanir Ezra Blumenkranz, oud, acoustic and electric bass; Nicholas Cords, violin; Sandeep Das, tabla; Patrick Farrell, accordion; Johnny Gandelsman, violin; Joseph Gramley, percussion; Colin Jacobsen, violin; Siamak Jahangiry, ney; Kayhan Kalhor, kamancheh; Dong-Won Kim, percussion; Yo-Yo Ma, cello; Wu Man, pipa; Cristina Pato, piano, gaita; Shane Shanahan, percussion; Mark Suter, percussion; Wu Tong, sheng, bawu, suona; and Kojiro Umezaki, shakuhachi.

Obviously, the program of A Playlist Without Borders contains varied items representing varied countries and cultures. There are seven items involved, totaling a healthy seventeen tracks and seventy-six minutes of music. You may not like all of it, but there’s a little something in here for everyone.

The first selection is one of the longest, "Playlist for an Extreme Occasion," an eight-movement piece by jazz pianist and composer Vijay Lyer. It begins with a vibrant rhythmic thrust and then moves on to a number of other dance forms and variations. Lyer says he wanted the music "to connect with audiences in any situation and communicate a real joy in creating music in the moment." Thus, there is a sort of infectious improvisational jazz style to the largely up-tempo tunes. They're easy to like.

"Night Thoughts" by Wu Man uses several percussive and wind instruments to produce a distinctively airy and meditative sound. "Saidi Swing" by Shane Shanahan uses a traditional Arabic rhythm that is quite invigorating. And so it goes through the rest of the tracks, with traditional Turkish, Iranian, Gypsy, and even Cajun music.

The final number on the program, called "Briel," is by avant-garde American composer John Zorn. It's one movement from his longer "Book of Angels," and while it is hardly what we might call "classical," it has a definitely cinematic feel to it, beginning in a kind of Native American mode and then turning to any number of other influences including Jewish klezmer and conventional jazz. It is probably the most joyous track on the album. I'd liked to have heard more of it.

The Silk Road Project, Inc. made the recording for Sony Masterworks at Futura Studios, Roslindale, Massachusetts in March 2013. The sound is relatively close and well delineated, but not exactly natural in terms of width or depth. It's a little more pop oriented than that. Still, the definition is fine, without being forward or aggressive, and there is a pleasantly warm acoustic bloom around the instruments. Frequency response, dynamic range, and transient impact seem adequate to the occasion.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For over 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me--point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, as of right now it comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio High Current preamplifier, AVA FET Valve 550hc or Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa