Silk Road Project brings world music mentors to Tanglewood


LENOX >> The exceptionally talented young professionals who make up Tanglewood Music Center's prestigious fellows program learn orchestral repertoire and performance techniques from some of the top conductors and soloists of the classical music world.

This summer, at TMC's inaugural Global Musicians Workshop, 18 lucky fellows are learning from music masters of a very different kind, each versed in indigenous music from around the world and part of superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma's acclaimed Silk Road Project, born at Tanglewood in 1998.

Since its inception, Ma has introduced unique collaborations between western and eastern musicians to audiences worldwide.

The week-long workshop will culminate in a performance by faculty and fellows on tonight at 8 p.m. in Ozawa Hall.

'Expand perspectives'

Reached at a bluegrass festival in Colorado, workshop leader Mike Block, who performs with the Silk Road Ensemble and leads his own musician training camps, explained that Ma "was particularly interested in sharing our values and cultures with young professional musicians."

Because of Ma's long-term relationship with Tanglewood, he wanted to bring the workshop, which was launched at Indiana's DePauw University in 2015, to TMC fellows "to expand their perspectives and experience of what music can be," Block said.

"We're trying to engage the next generation of performing artists, to immerse them in another style and experience it fully."

The four master musicians are West African percussive virtuoso Balla Kouyate from Mali, who plays the balafon, a buzzy wooden xylophone with gourd resonators; oud lute player Hadi Eldebek from Lebanon; Kaoru Watanabe, who plays both traditional Japanese "fue" and western flutes as well as taiko drum; and Block, a cellist adept in both classical and American folk music traditions.

"We wanted to share a diversity of music with the fellows," Block explained. "Like the faculty, they were chosen to represent a full range of orchestral instruments."

During the workshop, fellows formed four small "bands," each led by a faculty member "to take them from zero to performance," Block said. Entirely by ear, they learned the melody and rhythmic patterns of a traditional tune and how to improvise and arrange it.

Unlike western orchestras, much of the world's music exists in smaller ensembles, Block noted.

"There's not many musical groups that have 80 people in them," he said.

During his own classical training — his father was an orchestral conductor — Block was curious to know what the rest of the world was playing.

"I was a young impressionable cellist in the golden period of Yo-Yo's crossover albums, it made a big impression on me," he said.

In 2004, a Silk Road Ensemble professional development workshop he took at Tanglewood was "a life-changing experience." When he was asked to join the group, "I was seeing and playing instruments I'd never heard of before," he said, "and my whole concept of what music could be was immediately expanded."

Broadening horizons

Violist Michael Casimir from Philadelphia — a self-professed "huge Yo-Yo fan" — was fortunate enough to secure a place in this week's much-in-demand workshop. He had started learning by ear from his uncle, a gospel pianist, and, as a boy chorister, traveled widely and studied the music of South Africa, Brazil and Japan first-hand.

"I've been exposed to a lot of world music," he said, "and Yo-Yo's ability to cross over so fluidly is really inspiring."

"Orchestral music is my passion," said Kevin Gobetz, a double bass player. "But you have to broaden your horizons and see what else is out there. I thought it would be good to get out of my comfort zone, plus it's Silk Road and they are phenomenal."

Gobetz hopes the experience will help him when he joins the New World Symphony in Miami this fall. "They do a lot of outreach and [offer] unique opportunities, and I want to be prepared for that."

The orchestral world has seen a decline in conventional concert music, he added, "and there's a huge burden on [young] musicians to continue it." In order to do so, he believes, there needs to be exposure to different kinds of music and ways of doing things.

The workshop faculty all embrace the cross-cultural experience. Balla Kouyate, whose family is believed descended from the earliest known balafon players, introduced his instrument to the fellows by playing a Cuban melody as well as traditional tunes.

"You can only know where you are heading if you know where you came from," he explained. He plays not just from his African heritage, but from his curiosity.

Just like the fellows, "that's why I'm here," he said.


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