Tag Archives: Silk Road Ensemble

The Allegorical Romance of “Layla and Majnun”

Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival Presentation

Layla and Majnun Photo Credit: Susana Millman


Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival treated New York to a spectacular performance of the 7th century classic Arabic Bedouin tale of impossible love, “Layla and Majnun,” October 26-28.  There are numerous secular and mystical versions of the legend all over the world, once described by Lord Byron as  “the Romeo and Juliet of the East.”   Over centuries, two key poets in world literature popularized the story throughout Central Asia, the Middle East, and beyond.  The story has become renowned and celebrated in the history of literature, visual arts, cinema, and music in many diverse cultures.

The 12th century Persian poet, Nizami Ganjavi, whose epic poem of close to 5000 distichs rends the heart with the immense agony and longing suffered by Layla and Majnun, the two hapless protagonist lovers in the story 1. Their union is forbidden by their parents due to the all-consuming love madness of Majnun (meaning “possessed”).  Nizami’s version eventually influenced the 16th century Azerbaijani poet Muhammad Fuzuli’s version.  In turn, the Azerbaijani composer, Uzeyir Hajibeyov, borrowed Fuzuli’s work to create the Middle East’s first opera that premiered in Baku in 1908.  Considered a national treasure in Azerbaijan, the 3½ hour long opera is still performed at the Azerbaijan State Opera and Ballet Theater every year as the season-opener.

Through collaboration between the Mark Morris Dance Group, the Silk Road Ensemble, the late British artist, Howard Hodgkin, and Azerbaijan’s famed singers Alim Qasimov in the role of Majnun, and his protege daughter, Fargana Qasimova as Layla, Lincoln Center’s presentation was a finely wrought synthesis of the theme story in music, dance, and visual art.

Intense and fast-paced, the performance is based on Hajibeyli’s opera score and the libretto on Fuzuli’s poem, Leyli and Majnun.  Lasting just over 65 minutes, the original opera has been transformed into a chamber piece as a suite arrangement in 6 parts.  It opens with a prelude medley of traditional Azerbaijani love songs, sung by Kamila Nabiyeva and Miralam Miralamov who play frame drums, while accompanied by players of kamancheh spike fiddle and tar lute.   As an overture, the introduction foretells the passion, despair, and unbearable pain to come.  They set the tone for the complexity of the drama to unfold, the desperate yearning by two separated souls in quest of love and union with each other.

The actual performance condenses the story’s many episodes into 5 acts: Love and Separation, The Parents’ Disapproval, Sorrow and Despair, Layla’s Unwanted Wedding, and The Lovers’ Demise.  16 dancers stylistically fuse ballet, Azerbaijani folk dance, and Sufi dervish whirling over tiered stage levels. They enact the sequence of dramatic episodes against a screened abstract painting of vibrant green and red giant expressionist brush strokes created by the artist Howard Hodgkin.

The music is glorious and the dramatic binding force. Flashes and passages of western classical modalities enhance the foundation of Azerbaijani classical music, the mugham genre.  In Lincoln Center’s program notes, Azerbaijani ethnomusicologist Aida Huseynova, notes,

Mugham is a branch of the large maqam tradition cultivated in the Middle East and Central Asia.  An improvised modal music, mugham historically has been performed by a mugham trio that consists of a singer playing gaval (frame drum) and two instrumentalists playing tar (lute) and kamancheh (spike fiddle).  Mugham remains a precious part of the traditional music heritage of Azerbaijan.  Since the early 20th century, mugham also has become the main source of creative inspiration and experimentation for Azerbaijani composers…. In 2003, UNESCO recognized Azerbaijani mugham as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity 2.

In concert with the featured star vocalists, Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova, seated on a low dais center stage,10 musicians expand the traditional mugham trio formation.  On a diverse instrumental mix of kamancheh, tar, shakuhachi, pipa, hand percussion, two violins, viola, cello, and bass – they are true to the Silk Road Ensemble vision of global cultural cross-pollination and musical dialogue.  Theirs is a grand symphonic expression of the story, illuminated by rapidly changing passages of pathos, glints of joy in hope, sorrow.  Theirs too is delicacy and elegant refinement.

To hear the opening strains by the string musicians is to be transported to a realm of contemplation of the soul.  They tug at your heart, gently.  With a shift in tempo, all musicians join in, allegretto, and with urgency.  The symphony swells, bearing the powerful melismatic wails of Majnun.  Layla begins to lament, sob, and weep. The dancers whirl, swoop, and leap in rhythmic counterpoint movement with the orchestration.  So begins the impassioned, doomed dialogue between Majnun and Layla, musically alternating with instrumental passages.

Although on one level this is a tragic secular story of unrequited love, the entire performance narrative carries mystical overtones of Sufism.  Sufis have long interpreted the love story as a reflection of love for God.  In allegory, Majnun symbolizes the Human Spirit longing for the Beloved or Layla as Divine Beauty.

Majnun strives to realize “perfect love” in Layla, a love that transcends sensual contact with the beloved, a love that is free from selfish intentions, lust, and earthly desires. Precisely for this reason, many commentators have interpreted Nezami’s Laili and Majnun as a Sufi (Islamic mystical) allegorical narrative, where the lover seeks ultimate union with, as well as annihilation in, the Beloved (i.e. the Divine or the Truth). Majnun’s harsh life in the desert, then, has been compared to the ascetic life of Muslim mystics who rejected earthly pleasures and renounced worldly affinities 3.

There is also deeper meaning in the Azerbaijani mugham itself.  The musical experience is meant to bring about a transformation of consciousness.  Aida Huseynova has commented: “Mugham is about a catharsis.  You go through suffering and you purify your soul.  You come to some new phase of your development as a human being.  And this is the main meaning, spiritual and philosophical, of mugham.  Mugham is just not music, it’s a philosophy 4.”

A universal epiphany occurs in the ending death of Layla and Majnun – their ultimate union with the Beloved Divine.  Like a jewel, the facets of the performance still shine bright in memory.  I still haven’t decided if I felt that the performance as a suite composition could have been longer or whether I wished to be caught in its spell for just a few more minutes.


Artist Profiles: Silk Road Ensemble

Silk Road Ensemble – Photo by Todd Rosenberg

The Silk Road Ensemble is a collective of internationally renowned performers and composers from more than 20 countries. Each Ensemble member’s career responds to one of the preeminent artistic challenges of our times: to maintain the integrity of art rooted in authentic traditions while nourishing global connections.

Many of the musicians first came together under the artistic direction of Yo-Yo Ma at a workshop at Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts in 2000. Since then, in various configurations, Ensemble artists have collaborated on a diverse range of musical and multimedia projects, presenting innovative performances that spring from Eastern and Western traditions and contemporary musical crossroads.

The Silk Road Ensemble has performed to critical acclaim throughout Asia, Europe and North America and has recorded several acclaimed albums.


Silk Road Journeys: When Strangers Meet (2002)
Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon (2005)
New Impossibilities (2007)
Traditions and Transformations: Sounds of Silk Road Chicago (2008)
Off the Map (2009)
A Playlist Without Borders (Sony Classical, 2013)
Sing Me Home (Sony Masterworks, 2016)

Website: silkroadproject.org


Magnificent Silk Road

The Silk Road Ensemble - Off the Map
The Silk Road Ensemble – Off the Map

The Silk Road Ensemble

Off the Map (World Village, 2009)

With a worldwide network of master musicians spanning cultures and genres, an innovative musical outreach program and teaching curriculum, as well as stunning recordings such as New Impossibilities, Silk Road Journeys: When Strangers Meet and Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon, The Silk Road Project has conjured up another spellbinding collaboration to captivate listeners.

Off the Map, out on the World Village label, features new works from composers Gabriela Lena Frank, Angel Lam, Evan Ziporyn and Osvaldo Golijov. Plucking inspiration from well worn musical traditions and instruments Off the Map leaps headlong into the fantastical and blazes a trail to a heady font of new music, a place where imagination knows no bounds.

Off the Map opens with three pieces composed by Gabriela Lena Frank, featuring Wu Man on pipa, Wu Tong on sheng, Colin Jacobsen and Johnny Gandelsman on violin, Nicholas Cords on viola and Eric Jacobsen on cello. Holding onto the threads of her diverse background (an American father and Peruvian mother with Chinese ancestors), Ms. Frank offers listeners the wildly wonderful “Ritmos Anchinos.” Colored with influences from South American and the Andes, “Ritmos Anchino” sends the listeners off onto dazzling journey filled brightly worked mix of sheng, strings and pipa. Wu Man’s extraordinary joyfulness and expert mastery of the pipa stands out as Ms. Frank’s compositions finds the light-hearted sweetness, fierceness and clever playfulness of the instrument.

Finding a darker place on the map, Angel Lam’s composition “Spirit Rain” takes the listener on a spiritual journey with Kojiro Umezaki on shakuhachi, Johnny Gandelsman on violin, Eric Jacobsen on cello, Jeffrey Beecher on bass, Mark Suter on marimba and Shane Shanahan on percussion. Deliciously moody in tone “Spirit Rain” fills quiet spaces with deftly worked marimba, shakuhachi, cello and bass. The effect is simply mesmerizing.

“Sulvasutra” is the work of Evan Ziporyn. Working with Sandeep Das on tabla, Wu Man on pipa, Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen on violin, Nicholas Cords on viola and Eric Jacobsen on cello, Mr. Ziporyn lures the listener into a mystical chasm, decorated with the lightness of pipa, soaring strings and the wondrous expressions found in Mr. Das’s playing. “Sulvasutra” discovers the powerfully dramatic, fantastically edgy and sweeping cinematic parts of Mr. Ziporyn’s musical map.

Last, but not least, “Air to Air,” composed by Osvaldo Golijov, hosts a whole host of extraordinary musicians that includes Jeffrey Beecher on bass, Nicholas Cords on viola, Jeremy Flower on laptop, Johnny Gandelsman on violin, Joseph Gramley on percussion, Colin Jacobsen on violin, Kayhan Kalhor on kamancheh, Dong-Won Kim on jang-go, Cristina Pato on Galician bagpipe, Bassam Saba on nay, Shane Shanahan on percussion, Mark Suter on percussion, Kojior Umezaki on shakuhachi, Wu Man on pipa and Wu Tong on sheng.

It goes without saying that “Air to Air” attacks the listener with full force. With rich Middle Eastern, Spanish and Eastern touches, Mr. Golijov’s composition attacks the senses with pure abandon. Lushly worked and elegantly wrought “Air to Air” glides across the musical map with astonishing grace and fierce passion, conjuring up a mental landscape that is just as elaborate.

Off the Map is sumptuous, magnificent and simply stunning, as if we’d expect anything different from The Silk Road Ensemble.

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Silk Road Ensemble Goes Off The Map

Silk Road Ensemble - Off the Map
Silk Road Ensemble – Off the Map

The internationally acclaimed Silk Road Ensemble has a new recording titled Off the Map, which is the group’s first independent recording, released on the World Village label. Produced by the Silk Road Project and In A Circle Records, Off the Map is a testament to the close collaborative spirit of the Silk Road Ensemble.

The album features new works commissioned from four celebrated contemporary composers: Osvaldo Golijov, Gabriela Lena Frank, Evan Ziporyn and Angel Lam, performed by fifteen members of the musical collective, including international stars Kayhan Kalhor, Wu Man, Cristina Pato and Wu Tong.

Off the Map’s release marks a highpoint during the 10th anniversary of the Silk Road Project, a nonprofit artistic, cultural and educational organization founded in 1998 by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, its artistic director. For this album, Yo-Yo Ma stepped out of the recording studio but offered his artistic direction on the CD, which was produced by violinist Jonathan Gandelsman and the Silk Road Ensemble.

I’m proud of what the Silk Road Ensemble, this exceptional group of musicians and friends, has accomplished with Off the Map,” Yo-Yo Ma commented. “It has been a pleasure to be part of the evolution of Gabi, Angel, Evan and Osvaldo’s pieces over the last three years, and I think this recording is a wonderful celebration of a true and ongoing collaboration. Off the Map makes these four great works accessible beyond the concert hall, and I hope audiences will embrace the Ensemble in the release of its first independent CD.”

The four pieces recorded on Off the Map resulted from an intensive workshop at Tanglewood Music Center in 2006, during which Silk Road Ensemble performers collaborated with composers on new works inspired by sources as varied as Peruvian mythology, an ancient Sanskrit treatise, personal childhood experience, and the intersection of traditional Christian, Muslim and Arabic music. The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma has toured these works to critical acclaim in North America and Europe within the past year. Each springs from a musical crossroads, displaying a distinctive outlook embraced by the Silk Road Ensemble, one that seeks to learn from others’ traditions and reflects the multicultural reality of many contemporary musicians’ lives.

Embracing myriad musical influences is typical of the work of renowned composer Osvaldo Golijov, whose Air to Air culminates the CD. Raised in Argentina surrounded by classical music, klezmer and tango, Goljiov studied in Israel and now resides in the United States. Air to Air recasts four pieces originally written for voice for Western strings; percussion; the Persian kamancheh, a spike fiddle; the Korean jang-go drum; the Galician bagpipe; the nay (a Lebanese flute); and the Chinese pipa (a lute), and sheng (mouth organ). Influences on the work’s four movements range from indigenous music of Mexico to protest song from 18th century Sardinia; sacred song is juxtaposed with contemporary music through Muslim Arab melodies and songs from the Christian Arab Easter service, known to millions across the Middle East through recordings by the incomparable Lebanese singer Fairouz. As Golijov has described Air to Air, it is “music borne from community.”

For Golijov, the music and musicians of the Silk Road Ensemble exemplify this concept. “For them the connection between Western and non-Western is now almost a mutation,” he commented. “They’ve opened the gates of communication. This is good for music.”

Other works on the album include Ritmos Andinos from Gabriela Lena Frank, a 2009 Guggenheim Fellow and Latin Grammy Award nominee who was recently named creative adviser to the Berkeley Symphony. The piece incorporates Latino/Latin American mythology, archeology, art, poetry and folk music into Western classical forms, reflecting Frank’s Peruvian-Jewish-Chinese heritage.

Evan Ziporyn, founding member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars and artistic director of Gamelan Galak Tika, contributes Sulvasutra. a devilishly complicated rhythmic work evocative of the creation of the universe, written for Sandeep Das, a master of the tabla or Indian drums, and pipa virtuoso Wu Man. Empty Mountain, Spirit Rain, a work inspired by a poignant memory of family, features a soaring motif from Kojiro Umezaki on the shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute.

The composer Angel Lam. grew up in Hong Kong and Los Angeles; her works have been performed in East Asia, the United States, Europe and South America. The works recorded on Off the Map were commissioned by Carnegie Hall through the Weill Music Institute in partnership with the Silk Road Project. The world premieres were given at Carnegie Hall, New York City, in September 2006.

As part of the Silk Road Project’s 10th anniversary celebration. Off the Map‘s release follows a critically acclaimed tour of European music festivals by the Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma in September 2009. Anniversary programming will conclude with an Asian concert tour in South Korea, Taiwan. Macao and Singapore in April 2010. The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma will tour U.S. music festivals in August 2010.

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