Given the sheer mileage they cover, it's no wonder that Yo-Yo Ma's famous Silk Road Ensemble, a musical caravan named after the trade routes linking Europe and Asia, brings so much baggage with them.
Led by the superstar cellist and dedicated to discovering commonalities between seemingly disparate musical cultures, they're the world-music crossover band of one of the most famous musicians in the world, burdened with more good intentions and celebrity glamour than perhaps any other group in the classical sphere. Has any chamber group had more to prove to the cynics?
It couldn't, and probably shouldn't, matter much to Ma or his band that there are curmudgeonly listeners whose gag reflex will be triggered by the mention of the words "world music" and "crossover," but just in case there are any of them reading this review of Silk Road's new disc, "A Playlist Without Borders," this might be a good moment to focus on everything else that the Silk Road Ensemble has to offer.
Silk Road isn't just Yo-Yo Ma's band: it's also an incubator of spectacular young talent, as well as a collection of international all-stars. And it isn't just a crossover project: it's also a major commissioning project, connecting living composers to huge audiences.
The album's title track of sorts, Playlist for an Extreme Occasion, offers the opportunity to hear the wild and funky melodic sensibility of jazz pianist Vijay Iyer emerge from the gaita, an Iberian bagpipes, played by Silk Road's Cristina Pato.
Briel finally answers the question, "What would Yo-Yo Ma sound like playing the music of John Zorn?" And if Atashgah, by Silk Road fiddler Colin Jacobsen, is composed a little thinly, so much the better to shift the listener's attention toward Kayhan Kalhor's incredibly smoky sound on the kamancheh, a bowed Persian instrument.
And that doesn't even take into account the white-knuckle virtuosity of pipa player Wu Man and tabla player Sandeep Das. With guides like these, who wouldn't want to play tourist down this particular stretch of road?
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