Arts & Events

Silkroad Ensemble’s Multi-Cultural Heroes Take Their Stands

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday May 11, 2019 - 12:01:00 PM

For more than two decades, Silkroad Ensemble, originally the brainchild of Yo-Yo Ma, has been inspired by their motto, “Music, radical cultural collaboration, and passion-driven yearning for a more hopeful world.” Yo-Yo Ma stepped down as artistic director in 2017, and although he is still involved with Silkroad’s ongoing projects, he did not participate in the group’s latest work, Heroes Take Their Stand, which was commissioned by CalPerformances and was presented here on Friday, May 3, at Zellerbach Hall.  

Heroes Take Their Stands is an ambitious work. It continues Silkroad’s tradition of multi-cultural collaboration, and, in a new departure, it involves not only music but also multi-media collaboration. Conceived by Iranian-born Ahmad Sadri, a professor of sociology at Lake Forest College, Heroes Take Their Stands brings together heroic tales from five different cultures. Four are ancient, going back thousands of years, while one is modern. As Ahmad Sadri puts it, the heroes in these tales are “normal individuals who choose to act or react in ways that spare others’ lives or right profound injustices – and their acts offer enduring inspiration for us all.”  

At the heart of Heroes Take Their Stands are five new music compositions by different members of the Silkroad Ensemble. The music is paired with multi-media presentation created by visual artists who worked closely with the respective composers, thus forming five different teams of cultural collaborators. Overall, the music is inspired; the visual effects, as is so often the case, are a mixed-bag. Only one episode, The Prince of Sorrows, which recounts the tale of Siavosh from ancient Persia’s Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, by the poet Ferdowsi, is a wholly successful merging of music and visual effects. (I will deal at length with this episode later in this review.) Where the other four episodes are concerned, the visual component varies greatly, both in form and quality.  

The first episode of Heroes Take Their Stands deals with the ancient Greek figure of Elektra, who laments the murder of her father, Agamemnon, by her mother, Clytemnestra, and her mother’s illicit paramour, Aegisthus. Musically, Pauchi Sasaki’s score is itself a multi-cultural work, for it combines various Chinese and Japanese instruments with music associated with contemporary Greek music. Somehow, the music works beautifully. Percussion opens the work, then Wu Tong’s sheng and suona offer reed interventions, followed by violins offering solos evocative of Greek or Middle Eastern music. The visual component features a combination of Chinese black ink animation by Nomi Sasaki, other animation by Juan Carlos Yanaura, and 3D scanning of landscapes by Omar Lavalle, who also created the strange, haunting birdlike sculpture that mysteriously appears in this work’s final 3D landscape. However, what all this has to do with the figure of Elektra is questionable. If this episode were not called Elektra, would anyone be likely to guess that the music and visuals are supposed to deal with Elektra’s harried inner torment? I think not. 

The second episode, June Snow, recounts the 13th century Chinese tale of “The Injustice to Dou E.” A widowed child-bride, Dou E, faces a dilemma forced upon her by a rogue named Zhang. When Dou E refuses Zhang’s attempts to marry her, Zhang tries to kill Dou E’s mother-in-law but inadvertently kills his own father, then frames Dou E’s mother-in-law. Both the mother-in-law and Dou E are convicted and sentenced to be executed. Dou E declares that snow will come in midsummer to prove her own and her mother-in-law’s innocence. And, indeed, snow comes in June. The music for June Snow is composed by Kaoru Watanabe, and Wu Man was responsible for the calligraphic imagery. Wu Man was also featured on her Chinese pipa, an upright stringed instrument that, like a guitar, is plucked rather than bowed. Musically, June Snow was wonderful. However, if one is unable to read the calligraphic imagery, its relevance to the story is totally opaque. 

Arjuna’s Revelation offers a tale from the Hindu epic The Mahabharata, or, specifically, from the Bhagavad Gita. It involves a dialogue between the warrior Arjuna and the Hindu deity Krishna, who gradually coaxes Arjuna to accept his destiny. The music for Arjuna’s Revelation is by Colin Jacobsen, and the visual component was by dancer-choreographer Aparna Ramaswamy. Though program notes indicate that this work comprises six dialogues between music and dance, I couldn’t discern any separation of one dialogue from any other. Being unfamiliar with Indian dance traditions, I found Aparna Ramaswamy’s dancing to be interestingly graceful while angular. But I failed to understand how her dance movements were in any way illustrative, if indeed they were, of the six dialogues between Arjuna and Lord Krishna. Musically, there was excellent percussion on tabla by Sandeep Das. 

The fourth episode, entitled Moderato 400, offered a contemporary tale. Or at least it tried to do so. Program notes tell us that this tale is set in an African-American church in Alabama, where Martin Luther King preaches resistance to the oppression that surrounds the Black community. Musically, the score by Jason Moran utilizes sheng, piano, and taiko drumming to evoke a call-and-response effect. Wu Tong offered hymn-like vocals toward the end of Moderato 400. The visual component, by videographer Lucy Raven, offered a totally mystifying stop-and-go set of repetitive images of what looked like smoke billowing out of an urban city-scape. At least that’s what I made of these images, though how they related to Dr. King’s positive, uplifting message I can’t fathom. All in all, this was the least successful of the five episodes of Heroes Take Their Stands. 

At last we come to what was unquestionably the highlight of the show, The Prince of Sorrows, the 10th century Persian tale recounting the travails of Prince Siavosh. Propositioned by his step-mother, the queen, Siavosh refuses her advances. In a rage, she accuses him of rape. Siavosh proves his innocence by riding his horse through raging fire and escapes unharmed. Then he leads his father’s troops in a successful battle against the king’s enemies. However, when the king orders his son to kill the hostages, Siavosh refuses, and instead goes into exile with a neighboring tribe, who welcome him with marriage into their royal family. In the end, however, Siavosh’s father takes his revenge and oversees the beheading of Siavosh, who thus dies a heroic martyr.  

The music for The Prince of Sorrows is by Persian-born Kayhan Kalhor, who is also featured in the work on kamancheh, an upright stringed instrument that is bowed. The music itself was inspiring, featuring not only the kamancheh but also the nay of Siamal Jahangiri, the tombak of Navid Afghah, and vocals by Amir Mardaneh. The visuals, for once, were strikingly appropriate to the story. Indeed, the visuals by filmmaker Hamid Rahmanian actually told the story, utilizing images of Siavosh’s exploits drawn in the fashion of Persian miniatures, then animated by Qmars Kamali. This visual narrative was a delightful counterpart to the inspiring music of Kayhan Kalhor. Occasional Persian calligraphy in Farsi also made its appearance here and there but never obtrusively. All told, The Prince of Sorrows alone was more than worth the price of admission to The Heroes Take Their Stands. Coming as it did as the final of five episodes, The Prince of Sorrows enabled the audience to leave the auditorium on a high, finding at least in this one piece, and, to a varying degree in the other episodes, the uplifting inspiration at the heart of this Silkroad Ensemble project.