SACRED SIGNS Crowns Mystical Silk Road Ensemble Concert in Chapel Hill

Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky in 2009.

As many times as I’ve listened to recordings of the Silk Road Ensemble, and those of several of its members–some of whom I’ve heard live–I was unprepared for the magnificence of the Ensemble’s live concert in Memorial Hall as Carolina Performing Arts’ year-long exploration of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring got underway. I attended the second of the two nights, on Oct. 1, so the two new works were receiving their second public performances. The best part of a great evening came after intermission, when a dozen musicians from 8 countries played Sacred Signs, a CPA-commissioned work by the Uzbeki composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky, which draws on aural fragments from Stravinsky, takes inspiration from the writings of Nicholas Roerich, who designed the set and costumes for the original Ballet Russes production of The Rite in 1913.

Composer Igor Stravinsky (right) and impresario Sergei Diaghilev in Seville during their Ballets Russes collaboration. (Photo by Hulton Archive, Getty Images). 1921

The ten-section composition exceeds in beauty all works by Yanov-Yanovsky I’d heard previously. The structures are interesting, and it’s fun to pick out the Stravinsky phrases, but Sacred Signs goes far beyond the mechanical. Each section (charmingly, the sections are dedicated to various members of the Ensemble) has a distinct emotional quality and feels complete in itself, but together they comprise an emotional journey, starting with “In the Morning,” and ending “At the Last Gate.” A rich panoply of aural texture, color and volume, made possible by the Ensemble’s combination of instruments, arrays itself in these pieces. Some have percussionists running back and forth among their many playthings, while Sandeep Das at the center creates multiple brisk rolling rhythms on his tabla; others rely more on the honeyed flow of Yo-Yo Ma’a cello under the reverberant ringing strings of of Wu Man‘s pipa.

Silk Road Ensemble, photo by Jennifer Taylor. Front row, L-R: Colin Jacobsen, Nicholas Cords, Yo-Yo Ma, Kayhan Kahlor.

All the strings, all the mouth instruments and maximum percussive items go at once as Sacred Signs culminates in a glorious roar. After I could think again, I knew I’d been to a place of fundamental wisdom. Sublime is the correct word for this music.

Carolina Performing Arts has commissioned twelve works for this season. It’s staggering—this is arts patronage on a very significant scale. Not every piece will be a masterpiece for the ages, I’m sure. The CPA-commissioned video backdrop for Sacred Signs, by Hillary Leben for one, is a less-than-successful endeavor. A combination of overhead landscape photography and animation of Roerich’s drawings, with some vague shapes “dancing” now and then, the video is incredibly simplistic and jejeune, especially compared with the sophistication of the musical composition and its expression by the brilliant musicians. Even if the video had been great, I would not have wanted to divide my attention between it and the players. And in the case of Sacred Signs, the conductor. Ordinarily, the Ensemble works by listening carefully and playing together passionately, but for the complex, long, new work with its many shifts in tone and tempo, Alastair Willis conducted. Tall and very slim, he rises still taller at the crescendi, going up on his toes and stretching long arms high and wide. In quieter moments, he hunches a little, his shoulder blades pressing out sharply like little wings pushing out of his jacket. Watching these people make music is almost as good as hearing it.

The evening opened with a wonderful arrangement, by four members of the Ensemble, of John Zorn’s Suite from Book of Angels. The sounds wind and soar, wrapping one with a silken sense of colors in motion. This ravishing work was followed by Colin Jacobsen’s mystical Atashgah. Jacobsen was greatly influenced by his travels in Iran, and this piece has to do with elemental things: air, fire, the rising spirit. It features the incomparable Kayhan Kahlor on kamancheh, and the unworldly sound of the gaita (Galician bagpipes), played by Cristina Pato. These two pieces were a foretaste of the sweets to come after intermission.

But before that was a brand new, Silk Road-commissioned piece by Vijay Iyer, called Playlist for an Extreme Occasion, referring to the infamous opening night of The Rite of Spring, music and ballet. Here, too, you could hear occasional Stravinsky phrases surface, and the overall feeling was jumpy, aggressive. It was jarring at the time, because of the very different feeling of the jazz piano, and the contrast with the smoothness of the earlier pieces. However, in terms of the whole program, it made an excellent change, an unexpected break in the proceedings, that made one all the more receptive to the unfolding surprises of Sacred Signs.

The Silk Road Ensemble has a well-developed relationship with Carolina Performing Arts now, and will undoubtedly be back another year. But some of the Ensemble members will return much sooner, on Nov. 16, for what promises to be a fantastic concert by the super-quartet Brooklyn Rider, along with some of their friends. Colin Jacobsen, Jonathan Gandelsman, and Nicholas Cords will be joined by fellow Rider Eric Jacobsen, and Gabriel Kahane and Shara Worden. The program will include Stravinsky, Bartok and lots of new work, including more Carolina Performing Arts commissions, one a new piece by Colin Jacobsen.

Colin Jacobsen. Photo by Sarah Small.

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