Living in one of the world’s most diverse cities, the idea of the coming together of different cultures, peoples and ethnicities is part of our everyday reality. But the way the Silk Road Ensemble actually embodies that idea – and the idea that there are unrecognized, essential and exciting connections between cultures – is extremely rare.
The trade route that inspired the group’s name began seeing traffic just over 2000 years ago. That traffic, which went both Eastward and Westward, brought more than just products that fueled the ancient world’s economy: It brought people, ideas and art, linking together Europe, Africa and Asia in ways difficult to measure, but easy to imagine. The Silk Road has become shorthand for a cross-cultural meeting point, but it wasn’t until celebrated cellist, veteran of many Roy Thomson Hall appearances and the only French-born Chinese-American cellist to have a Toronto street named after him, Yo-Yo Ma, put the group together in 2000 that the concept of the cross-cultural meeting was truly brought to life.
“The Silk Road Ensemble…is a lab where openness is absolutely fundamental,” says Ma.
“You can actually go from one world to another and create something that values the differences as well as celebrates the commonality.”
What the Ensemble offers isn’t just a selection of music, musicians and instruments from around the world – though they do that, with members hailing from more than twenty countries, from along the Silk Road and beyond, including: Chinese-born pipa (Chinese lute) master Wu Man; “one of the living masters of the gaita” (Galacian bagpipes), Cristina Pato; Iranian kamancheh (three- or four-stringed bowed instrument) virtuoso and composer Kayhan Kalhor; the TSO’s own principal bassist, Jeffrey Beecher; and many more.
The Ensemble celebrates the points at which different music and cultures interact, influence one another and bring traditions forward. It’s the idea that what we think of as distinct musical traditions not only can communicate with one another, but that they should communicate with each other, and they have been doing so for at least as long as the Silk Road had been bringing people together.
The group’s repertoire consists of not only rearrangements of traditional music from along the Silk Road, but also a significant number of new commissions: 80 new works by composers and arrangers from around the world have been created for the Ensemble.
When the Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma takes to the Massey Hall stage on Tuesday, September 15, they will be embodying the cross-cultural exchanges made possible by the ancient trade route, and sharing a performance over 2000 years in the making.