We made a quick decision on Friday night to stop by the last of BBC's Late Night Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. Performing that evening was Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. What a spectacular treat. The performance, as one might expect from any other big named celebrity, was not the Yo-Yo Ma show. Instead, the world's happiest man praised his fellow musicians and gave them the opportunity to share stories or explain the history behind each of the pieces.
Yo-Yo Ma started the Silk Road Project in 1998 as a means of exploring how musical traditions have changed over time. The Silk Road trade routes, which inspired the Project, enabled musicians from East and West to introduce new technologies and instruments to one another. The Project aims to show that many cultures have shared traditions, which we often choose to forget.
The first piece, the Silk Road Suite, featured five movements, which transported the audience from East to Central Asia. The first movement was the improvised 'Wandering Wind', which featured Japanese and Chinese flutes. The following movements included a sheng, or Chinese mouth organ, as well as the Indian tabla.
The second piece, The Taranta Project, was inspired by the cultural diversity of Sicily. The players truly had fun with this piece, which was made clear by percussionist Shane Shanahan who abandoned his drum and kept up the rhythm by slapping his face, chest, and thighs. Empty Mountain, Spirit Rain, written by Angela Lam, was a beautifully mellow piece that depicted Lam's childhood memory of the day her grandmother died.
The final piece was by far our favourite. One of the musicians, Wu Man, explained that Ambush from Ten Sides was a traditional solo piece for the pipa, a short-necked wooden lute. The piece tells the story of a battle between two dynasties. Yo-Yo Ma told the audience that the Ensemble was going to borrow the piece for the evening and that Wu Man was being Ambushed by 10 Guys. Guest percussionist (and London's own) Oliver Lowe helped the piece fully come to life. Musician Wu Tong rocked out (yes, rocked out) on the sheng while audience members clapped him on.
Shows like this one make us wish that we had dropped by the Proms a bit more this season. We will be sure to rigorously check next year's calendar in hopes of seeing the Ensemble once again.