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Album Review

The peripatetic Yo-Yo Ma brought his hugely popular Silk Road Ensemble road show to Chicago for a year-long "residence" in 2006/2007. It must have been a hugely ambitious undertaking; there were something like 250 separate events related to this cross-cultural project, allied with the mighty Chicago Symphony, the Chicago Cultural Affairs Department, and the Art Institute of Chicago. This single CD, the third in Ma's Silk Road series, is a distillation of what went on, rush-released only three months after these live recordings were made.

Rahih Abou-Khalil's "Arabian Waltz opens the CD with a jazzy, East-West fusion that actually generates some swing. The fashionable poly-stylistic composer Osvaldo Golijov is represented by "Night of the Flying Horses," whose title doesn't quite come into focus until nearly the last minute. Opening with a lullaby that mourns with a Yiddish strain, the Doina takes things to an even darker place until Golijov breaks out in a manic Gallop with a bit of a boogie feeling in the bassline. "Shristi" is a percussion piece that develops some drive and life-giving fervor, while "The Silent City" adopts minimalist trance procedures as it broods about an extinguished Kurdistani village. The Chicago Symphony, led by Miguel Harth-Bedoya, comes into play only twice — once as an asset, the second time not so fortuitously. In Zhou Long's "Song of Eight Unruly Tipsy Poets" for string quartet and orchestra, the music indeed sounds tipsy and challenging, laced with dissonances, displaying a sense of humor in the bent pizzicatos. In a Silk Road live performance in 2005, "Ambush from Ten Sides" was an explosive tone poem based upon an ancient Chinese piece of program music. But with the addition of orchestrations, it has turned into a sentimental, action-packed suite of film cues that no matter how exotic the instruments, still conjures nothing more meaningful than an in-your-face Hollywood summer pot-boiler. Indeed, a soundtrack quality has been creeping ominously into the Silk Road Project, where the tasty flavors of dozens of cultures tend to get blended into generic smoothies that go down well with the Starbucks and Borders set. But there is enough of genuine culture-clashing interest left here to keep the rest of us involved — and there is no denying the zest that these musicians radiate when they interact. Keep the last "Vocussion" track running for a joyous unbilled encore by the whole group. ~ Richard S. Ginell, Rovi

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