Mongolia is not one of those places with instant name recognition, yet I suspect that anyone who experienced the fascinating "Music and Dance of Mongolia" program Saturday at Baird Auditorium will soon be poring over globes and through encyclopedias to learn more about this land and its people.
Sponsored by New York's Asia Society, the event provided a cogent and charming sampling of traditional Mongolian movement, song and music-making. Eight performers, each a specialist in one or more art forms, consistently demonstrated that less is more -- that the simplest melody or dance step can prove the most thrilling. So what if the morin khuur, or horse-head fiddle, has only two strings? When played by Ishdanzan Tsogbadrakh, this humble cousin of the cello emits a resonant, down-home sound that works equally well solo or as accompaniment. Why ponder the dance vocabulary's limitations -- shimmying shoulders, circling arms, cupped hands, deep knee bends, innumerable swaying sequences -- when Dashjamts Nyamtsoo and Tsegmid Altangerel imbue these movements with such vivacity and conviction?
Though all facets of the performance seemed effortless, one had to marvel at some technical feats. Shagdar Dashaa's playing of the tsuur (end-blown flute) left one wondering how he can simultaneously create a constant vibrating tone and a melodic line. Even more mind-boggling was Davaa Tserendavaa's mastery of khoomei, a vocal style in which the singer intones a long, low drone while emitting high flutelike notes. The man sounded just like a high-tech synthesizer.
Then there were sounds that made one forget one's surroundings. Batchuluun Sarantuya's singing in the urtyn duu style -- a high-pitched, keening, heavily ornamented form -- evoked dreams of exotic temples and ancient rites, while Oidov Volodya's boisterous jew's-harp brought to mind a rowdy folk dance in some remote village. Each of these artists, garbed in silks and brocades, festooned with headdresses and shod with elfin leather boots, cast an ethereal serenity over the audience that remained long after the concert ended