New Impossibilities is the product of the Silk Road Ensemble’s year-long residency in Chicago. It features works by world music star Rabih Abou-Khalil and South American composer Osvaldo Golijov among others, several of which also involve the larger forces of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Cameo solo moments aside, Yo-Yo Ma is no more than an equal partner in a group that is carefully attentive to regional stylistic articulations and nuances, within a consistently classical aesthetic. From the delicate porcelain swoonings of Abou-Khalil’s Arabian Waltz to the slightly reedy violin tone used in Zhou Long’s Song of the Eight Unruly Tipsy Poets, the ensemble is always highly polished: rather than watering down the character of each piece (with the possible exception of the gypsy fiddling in Golijov’s Night of the Flying Horses), the Silk Road players manage to celebrate difference within a unified approach to the music they encounter, and the album as a whole benefits.
The real gem is Kayhan Kalhor’s The Silent City, whose expansive arch of intensity is incredibly well paced and starts from a lachrymose, intense stillness. It is refreshing to hear ‘ambient’ sound created by subtle acoustic playing rather than easy electronic effects, and the echoes in particular are stunningly graded. Sadly, the premiere of an arrangement of the traditional Chinese melody Ambush from Ten Sides is slightly disappointing, although more because of the Hollywood moments of the score than anything interpretative. As for Ma, he sparkles in a nifty and exuberant Mongolian duet with the pipa, but is otherwise happy to sit back and let his project shine.