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The culture-crossing sound of The Silk Road Ensemble

Overlapping circles: The Silk Road Ensemble bring a joyous improvisatory quality to their work. Photo/Liz Linder/Supplied

Multinational collective The Silk Road Ensemble have been combining instruments as diverse as Indian tablas and Galician bagpipes for two decades.

When The Silk Road Ensemble visit New Zealand for the first time, to perform at the Auckland Arts Festival and Womad, they will bring their unique musical expression and a powerful and timely metaphor for a more connected world.

Conceived two decades ago by superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the now-legendary ensemble began, he has said, as “an idea; a group of musicians getting together to see what might happen when strangers meet”.

The ancient Silk Road, a network of trade routes that connected East and West, became, for Ma, a symbol of ideas, of giving and exchanging, of seeing strangers not as “other” but as people to connect with through mutually beneficial “trade”. At first, he chose musicians for the collective from the Silk Road countries, seeking out “incredible talent” from places such as Venice, Istanbul, China and Mongolia.

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Violinist-violist Mario Gotoh is a member of the nine-person ensemble for the New Zealand tour. When Gotoh began playing with The Silk Road Ensemble in 2016, she already had a diverse musical career. Japanese-born, US-educated and living in New York City, she has had a “day job” as violinist-violist with Lin-Manuel Miranda’s acclaimed hip-hop Broadway show Hamilton since it opened at the Public Theater in 2015.

But she regularly takes leave from the show for other work, including the innovative chamber orchestra The Knights, projects with other bands and musicians and teaching. She’s part of a generational shift that is taking classical musicians into broader artistic contexts.

“The kinds of jobs I have are like many different passports to different places,” she tells the Listener. “I began violin when I was six and added the viola during my doctoral studies. It was classical at first, but I kept looking for ways to expand styles and genres – avant-garde art productions, electronic music, jazz, improvising, dance music, world music and folk. By stepping out of a familiar perspective, you reflect on what you’re doing and engage with other musicians in a different way. As a creative person, it’s vital to be open to that kind of thing – overlapping circles such as Venn diagrams, not bubbles that bounce off one another.”

When the opportunity came to play with Silk Road, she was ready. “I was working with Nicholas Cords [violist and now a co-artistic director of Silk Road], and when he wasn’t able to do a tour to Asia with Yo-Yo, he suggested I might play. So, it was straight to China with them. I’d also worked with Yo-Yo while recording albums with The Knights, so it was overlapping circles again. I’d known about them for such a long time and been a big fan of what they do, so it felt amazing to be with them – I felt very lucky.”

The Silk Road Ensemble are not a full-time group, but when the musicians come together for performances and projects, there’s a joyous improvisatory quality to their work.

“It’s a strong collection of like-minded people and great musicians,” says Gotoh. “The most memorable moments can be in rehearsals or backstage, as well as on-stage in concerts. When we’re really throwing things to one another, it’s a very playful ping-ponging of ideas; that’s where I find so much joy in this group – everyone’s really engaged and there’s a great sense of camaraderie.”

Mario Gotoh and Cristina Pato. Photo/Supplied

The leadership of the charismatic Ma remains all-important to Silk Road, but he recently handed the artistic director’s baton to several other musicians in the ensemble, and the group coming to New Zealand includes two of Silk Road’s inaugural co-artistic directors.

Multi-percussionist Shane Shanahan is perhaps a typical Silk Road musician. With a background in jazz, rock, classical and global drumming traditions, he’s played with Aretha Franklin, Philip Glass and Deep Purple, among others, and works across art forms in dance and theatre projects. His co-director colleague, bass player Jeffrey Beecher, works more often in orchestral and chamber music, currently as principal bass of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.

Audiences in Auckland and New Plymouth can expect a musical journey as surprising and adventurous as travel on the Silk Road itself.

The programme will open with a fanfare featuring the exuberant personality of Galician bagpipe master Cristina Pato, with Chinese musician Wu Tong on suona, a double-reeded horn.

Many of the works have been composed or arranged by members of the ensemble, including percussionist Mark Suter and Indian tabla player Sandeep Das. Excerpts from John Zorn’s suite Book of Angels are “very Silk Road”, says Gotoh, with each movement arranged by a different member of the ensemble.

New Zealand fans will hear one of Gotoh’s favourites, Beloved, Do Not Let Me Be Discouraged, by violinist-composer Colin Jacobsen. Based on a 14th-century Italian lauda, or sacred song, and an Iranian-inspired poetic setting about the tragic lovers Layla and Majnun, it’s from Silk Road’s arrangement of an Azerbaijani opera. “I love that piece,” Gotoh says. “Ideas from East and West come together and work really well.” The complete Layla and Majnun, a Silk Road collaboration with the Mark Morris Dance Group, was performed in Melbourne last October.

That project, as with most of Silk Road’s work, began with Ma, who approached choreographer Mark Morris several years ago. Although Ma’s travel with his international Bach Project prevents him joining the upcoming Australasian concerts, the spirit of Silk Road always derives from his example. “He often says, ‘music is a service’”, says Gotoh, “and everything outside of that is a ‘transaction’ and not a priority.”

In a world with huge global issues to address and some leaders emphasising nationalism and tightening borders, can culture – and an ensemble such as Silk Road – make a difference? “Yo-Yo is an ambassador for culture,” says Gotoh. “He’s working with economic and political leaders [through The Bach Project] to ensure culture takes an equal part in the conversation for the benefit of the world. Culture can create a place where we can connect, share our stories and understand each other.”

The Silk Road Ensemble play the Auckland Arts Festival on March 14 and Womad on March 16-17 in New Plymouth. Yo-Yo Ma’s The Bach Project play the Christchurch Town Hall on November 12.

This article was first published in the March 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.