The Silk Road is the network of trade routes crisscrossing Eurasia from China to the Mediterranean going back 3,000 years in history and first brought to public consciousness in the West in the 13th century by Marco Polo.
It inspired the great cellist Yo-Yo Ma, born in Paris to Chinese parents, to create the Silk Road Ensemble. The group of artists from 20 countries who cultivate and celebrate ethnic music has a mission “to maintain the integrity of art rooted in authentic traditions while nourishing global connections.”
Ma says of their work together: “”We have developed a bond of mutual respect, friendship and trust that is palpable every time we’re on stage.”
The ensemble – which has toured the world since 1990 and recorded five albums – appears in a Cal Performances presentation at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley today, and a San Francisco Performances concert at Davies Hall on Thursday.
The opening work is the “Silk Road Suite,” which includes music from various nationalities in the group, which is composed of Armenian, Indian, Iranian, Russian, Japanese, Chinese, Azerbaijani, Korean, Syrian, North American and other artists.
The program ranges from classic tunes on a small fiddle called the kamancheh to ethnic music by contemporary classical composers.
Among those composers is Berkeley Symphony creative advisor Gabriela Lena Frank, born in Berkeley to a mother of Peruvian-Chinese ancestry and a father of Lithuanian-Jewish descent.
Her “Chayraq: Rough Guide to a Modern Day Tawantinsuyu” draws on her Peruvian and Chinese heritage and her ethnomusicological research. “Chayraq” is a Peruvian Indian expression of excitement, similar to “hurrah”; Tawantinsuyu was the name of the pre-Conquest Incan Empire.
Another important contemporary composer, represented by a work called “Air to Air,” is Osvaldo Golijov, who grew up in an Eastern European Jewish household in La Plata, Argentina. He moved to the U.S. in 1986, and is now – along with Berkeley’s John Adams – among the most performed living composers around the world.
Hong Kong-born Angel Lam’s “Empty Mountain Spirit Rain” was inspired by the memory of waiting for her grandmother to pick her up from kindergarten as oppressive heat, a cloudburst, and the sun still shining all combined against the sound of a distant temple bell.
Italian cellist Giovanni Sollima’s “Taranta Project” and Kayhan Kalhor’s “Improvisations for Kamancheh” are also on the program.
Locally well-known pipa (Chinese lute) virtuoso Wu Man, a Kronos Quartet collaborator, is among soloists at the concert, along with Ma.
IF YOU GO
The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma
Where: Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley campus, Bancroft Way at Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Tickets: $45 to $125
Contact: (510) 642-9988, www.calperformances.org, (415) 392-2545, www.sfperformances.org