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Yo-Yo Ma, Silk Road Ensemble return to Mondavi

Cellist Mike Block performs with Yo-Yo Ma and members of the Silk Road Ensemble at the Lincoln Center in June 2010. They will perform April 8 at the Mondavi Center. Courtesy photo

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March 30, 2011 | Leave Comment

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma returns to the Mondavi Center on Friday, April 8, this time traveling with The Silk Road Ensemble. Ma played a leading role in launching the group in 2000, and first brought the Silk Road Ensemble to the Mondavi Center in November 2002, during the center’s inaugural season.

This year’s version of the Silk Road Ensemble features several familiar names, including Wu Man, who plays the Chinese pipa, and appeared at Mondavi with the Kronos Quartet in February 2007, and Cristina Pato, who plays the gaita, a form of bagpipes found in the Spanish region of Galicia.

Other musicians in the group will play the oud, a Middle Eastern relative of the European lute; the shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute; and the kamancheh, a small fiddle with a long, conical neck, originally from Iran. There are also percussion instruments from various lands.

The ensemble also includes traditional European instruments like the violin and viola. There are also two cellos — played by Ma, of course, and Mike Block.

You might think that being the “other cellist” in the group — when Ma’s name is on the marquee — might give a young musician the jitters. But the 28-year-old Block — who joined the Silk Road Ensemble in 2005, and graduated from the Juilliard School in 2006 — says it isn’t so.

“I know it should be scary, getting ready back stage and knowing that I’m up next. But Yo-Yo Ma is very supportive,” Block said. “He shares the spotlight with all the members of the group.

“One of cool things about Silk Road is that in some ways, it’s a world music ensemble” — hence those exotic instruments from around the globe.

“But in some ways it’s very much a new music ensemble,” Block continued “We get some of greatest composers from different countries and musical traditions to create new works that combine the instruments and styles in new way.”

While the musicians speak many different languages, “Our rehearsals are typically done in English,” Block said. “Occasionally, we have a member whose English is not strong, but there is always one person in group who can translate into something they understand.

“I remember when I first started playing in the group, there was an Armenian flute type player who didn’t speak any English at all. But we were able to communicate through Russian, which one of other Silk Road members spoke.”

Block added that the group offers new creative opportunities to the well-known Ma, whose popular following is so large that he sells out the Mondavi Center’s Jackson Hall every time he visits, regardless of what kind of music he’s playing.

“The Silk Road Ensemble brings out a different side of him,” Block said, “something that some of his traditional classical audience may not get to see when he plays the Bach Unaccompanied Cello Suites, as he did when he was in Davis the last time (May 2009). You see a different side of him with this group.”

Block said next week’s program at Mondavi will include a piece called “Air to Air” by Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov, whose song cycle “Ayre” was performed at Mondavi by soprano Dawn Upshaw and other artists in 2005, and whose arrangement of “Café Tacuba” for string quartet was performed here last December by the Kronos Quartet.

“Golijov’s ‘Air to Air’ is an incredibly exciting piece that features Cristina Pato on bagpipes,” Block said. “It’s a big rollercoaster of a piece, with some really emotional lows, followed by a climax that originated as a protest song from Eastern Europe. It’s a really beautiful mixture of cultures.”

Also on Friday’s program will be a piece called “Taranta Project” by Giovanni Sollima.

“This piece is for string quartet plus percussion,” Block said. “Sollima is a cellist from Sicily, he draws on a gypsy style. There is half a movement that involves body percussion solo, and one of the other movements includes a cello and percussion duo. The piece has very strong melodies and rhythms. It takes audience on beautiful journey.”

The Silk Road Ensemble concert sold out some months back, but determined souls might be able to pick up one of the turned-back tickets that almost always materialize at the box office on the day of the concert. Tickets are $50-$150 general, $25-$75 for students. For more information, visit http://www.mondaviarts.org or call (530) 754-2787.

Henry Spiller, a UC Davis faculty member specializing in world music, will give a 7 p.m. pre-concert talk in the Buehler Alumni and Visitors Center, across the street from the Mondavi Center.

— Reach Jeff Hudson at jhudson@davisenterprise.net or (530) 747-8055.

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