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Silk Road Ensemble Enlivens Ancient Opera

Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Silk Road Ensemble's show may have begun at 8 p.m. Wednesday, but it was a few minutes past 10 before anyone at Strathmore really heard the group's founder, famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma. The final few measures of "Layla and Majnun," a traditional opera from Azerbaijan, closed with Ma bowing a few measures of sonorous strains, a haunting elegy for star-crossed lovers.

You could leave mesmerized, or disappointed. This East-meets-West ensemble is not about Ma. It is about a dozen (mostly) young, adventurous musicians playing ancient music and commissioned works with an Eastern twist.

For two pieces on Wednesday's program, presented by Washington Performing Arts Society, the ensemble half-abandoned the caravan and hopped a boat for South America. Gabriela Lena Frank, a composer of Peruvian, Jewish and Chinese descent, composed a playful work for string quartet, pipa (a Chinese lute), and sheng (a Chinese mouth organ). Percussionist Mark Suter played the Peruvian cajón for the first-half finale, a wildly fun Gypsy dance arranged by multicultural It Boy Osvaldo Golijov.

Artistically, though, "Layla and Majnun" was the apex of the program. Classical musicmaking rarely achieves this combination of spontaneity and suburb craftsmanship. With carefully crafted sound and lighting, the Silk Road and Strathmore production crews set the mood for an opera that is, libretto-wise, a 7th-century after-school special. Alim Qasimov, a "People's Artist of Azerbaijan," and his daughter, Fargana, portrayed the ill-fated pair. Their super-pliant voices sustained both a melismatic vocal line and a mournful drone. "I yearn to feel this sorrow as long as I live," echoes one refrain. And likewise, those who felt this music will yearn to hear it again.

-- Rebecca J. Ritzel

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