by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, May 27, 2002.
Everybody likes Yo-Yo Ma—no one can get enough of him. Kramer, on "Seinfeld," once shouted his name for the sheer joy of it. Being universally adored has made it harder for the cellist to leave the glamorous rut of a jet-set career, but in the past decade he has struck out on his own, using his fame to underwrite his passions. He has made some abstruse choices along the way; not everyone believed him as a tango player, and not everyone made it through his filmic fantasias on the Bach cello suites. But any man who has had to play Dvorˇák’s Cello Concerto over and over with a beatific smile on his face deserves to do as he pleases in his spare time.
With the Silk Road Project, a nomadic festival of the music and musicians of Central Asia, Ma has hit the mother lode. This is an opulently detailed exposition of a simple but potent idea: that music is on some level the same everywhere, and that classical music is no longer a European art. Here, at Carnegie Hall, under the auspices of a Chinese-American musician, were composers and performers from Armenia, Azerbaijan, China, Iran, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Turkey, and Uzbekistan. The European tradition was represented by two Frenchmen (Debussy, Ravel) and a lone Russian (Shostakovich). The only German music that was heard in three long evenings was Beethoven’s "Für Elise," courtesy of an errant cell phone.
Ma undertook the Silk Road Project after becoming fascinated by the spread of musical styles, instruments, and playing techniques along the old trading routes between the Far East and the Mediterranean. In the first millennium, Central Asia had a magnificent cosmopolitan culture, and Ma wished to summon up the ghosts of its glory by musical means. He decided to bring together musicians of various Asian countries with leading composers from the region. He could not have anticipated the element of heartbreak that would enter into this utopian mingling of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist cultures in the months after September 11th.
The series began with the fantastically powerful and eerie voice of the Mongolian "long song" singer Khongorzul Ganbaatar. This set a pattern of alternating "roots" music, as the program notes called it, with works written for Ma and his ensemble. The great Azerbaijani singer Alim Qasimov demonstrated his passionate assimilation of the mugham, the Azerbaijani version of the monumental Islamic art-music genre the maqam. The Ilyas Malaev Ensemble, a group of Bukharan Jewish musicians formerly of Uzbekistan and now of Forest Hills, performed their own delicately ornamented variation on the maqam while wearing the brilliant garb of Muslim court entertainers. Certain modal patterns, especially that of the lowered second, were common to all this music, suggesting that some Jews and Muslims once sang alike.
What can a composer add to this welter of tradition? Critics of cultural appropriation will complain that style tourists like Debussy and Ravel used Eastern touches as exotic flavor, and they will have a point. But a work such as Shostakovich’s Piano Trio digs deeper, throwing itself wholeheartedly into a stomping dance out of deepest Yiddishkeit. The best of the new works in the Silk Road series echoed the Russian master in dropping the mask of modernist detachment. In "Dervish," the Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh matched twentieth-century techniques with the piercing directness of mugham. Vache Sharafyan’s "The Sun, the Wine, and the Wind of Time" melded Shostakovichian string laments with the droning melodies of the Caucasian duduk (a woodwind). The Iranian-born Kayhan Kalhor achieved the ultimate synthesis in his "Blue as the Turquoise Night of Neyshabur"; this was a written-out work that surged with improvisatory energy, erasing differences between Western and Eastern styles.
There were so many kinds of virtuosity on display that Ma’s own contribution almost got lost in the shuffle. Perhaps he wanted it this way; of all virtuosos, he is the most eager to blend in, to be a worker among workers. Even so, his tone sang out with a force and focus that I had not heard from him in a while. The series ended with a scalding performance of the Ravel Trio, in which Ma was joined by the pianist Joel Fan and the violinist Colin Jacobsen, his hardworking Western-style collaborators throughout the series. In light of what had come before, the Ravel felt like a palace perched on a jagged ridge—an immaculate creation bound to ancient forces.
"FAT MAN WON’T SING," read the collectible front page of the Post on May 10th. The paper was correct in predicting that Luciano Pavarotti would cancel his rumored farewell appearance at the Met’s end-of-season gala the following night. Patrons had paid up to eighteen hundred and seventy-five dollars to hear the big man one last time. He had been contracted to sing two performances of "Tosca"; he arrived in New York, sang the dress rehearsal, and came down with what was described as "influenza." On both nights, he waffled, said no, said yes, then cancelled shortly before the curtain went up. Joseph Volpe, the general manager, was not amused. Twice he had to apologize to a groaning crowd. The second time, visibly fuming, he recounted his conversation with Pavarotti, which included the superbly ominous sentence "This is a hell of a way to end this beautiful career of yours." As Baron Scarpia would have said, "Va, Luciano."
If this really is the end—and Volpe has a history of kicking superstars into oblivion—it is something of a tragedy. Anyone who thinks of Pavarotti as the butt of late-night talk-show jokes should remember that he was at one time an impeccably stylish singer of Italian opera—perhaps the most naturally gifted lyric tenor of the past fifty years. Even in his present dilapidated condition, he has automatic access to a pure bel-canto style that sounds artificial in the throat of every other singer, Plácido Domingo included. Pavarotti tended lovingly to a fragile tradition; he helped carry the Met through a bleak financial period in the seventies and eighties. Even in his "Three Tenors" dotage, he made opera matter to millions. Audiences responded not only to the voice but also to the face—that bright, open, generous countenance. So it was sad to see him test the affection of his public to the breaking point.
Salvatore Licitra, the rising star of La Scala, flew in from Milan at the last possible minute to sing Cavaradossi in Pavarotti’s place. The young tenor overcame formidable obstacles—the inevitable pressure of a Met début, the added pressure of replacing a legend, the Antarctic ice-floe tempos of James Levine—to make a powerful impression. His tenor lacks the supernatural ease of Pavarotti’s in its prime; the lower register is weak, the middle uneven. But he has thrilling, ringing high notes—they are sung, not hollered—and he cannily shapes his phrases to make his top-heaviness seem a dramatic necessity. In all, he easily held his own against the campily gripping Tosca of Maria Guleghina, not to mention the strangely muted Scarpia of James Morris.
Is this the tenor of tomorrow, the long-awaited successor to Pavarotti and Domingo? Possibly yes, to judge from the "Tosca" and a "Ballo in Maschera" I heard in Milan last year. In Licitra’s best moments, he actually sounds like an ideal blend of the two mega-tenors, echoing both Pavarotti’s fluency and Domingo’s fire. He has a combination of musicality and power that is essential for the Italian repertory. He moves around an opera stage as if he belonged there. He lingered for a long time during the huge ovation that greeted him at the end: it was hard to tell if he was genuinely stunned or was savoring a moment that he had long been expecting. A new Pavarotti? Be careful what you wish for.