Silk Road on the silver screen

by Alicia Anstead

Ask the musicians of the Silk Road Ensemble to describe their time together, and you are likely to hear these words repeatedly: family, curiosity, risk, passion, common ground, global. The ensemble is the performance arm of the Silk Road Project, a Harvard-based organization whose mission is to offer performances by these musicians, as well as to commission new music and develop educational programs.

The seed for the group was planted in 2000, when artistic director and cellist Yo-Yo Ma '76 (who launched the project in 1998) met with many of the musicians for a series of workshops at Tanglewood Music Center. The musicians have been together in one form or another ever since.

Many of them will join together again 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 15 at Harvard's Agassiz Theatre to present a sneak preview of the documentary The Silk Road Ensemble with Yo-Yo Ma: Live From Tanglewood, by filmmaker Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom). Tickets to the free event go on sale noon, Wednesday, Sept. 11. The film, to be released by Sony Masterworks on Sept. 24 as part of a 15-year anniversary, features a concert performance filmed (fittingly) at Tanglewood, along with behind-the-scenes conversations with the artists. A Playlist Without Borders, the group's newest CD recording, is also central to the celebration.

Pipa player Wu Man says she enjoyed the process of being a part of the new documentary, but her deeper commitment to the ensemble,as a founding member, draws from her experience of the cultural exchange and celebration at the heart of the mission. Growing up in China, she learned about the ancient Eurasian Silk Road trade route. By exchanging cultural traditions in the form of music with the ensemble's musicians from 20 countries, she has lived that globalized experience in performance.

"It's an adventure," she says. "As a musician, I am constantly looking for creative inspiration. I think of this project as my nutrition. For the Silk Road Project, we are telling and showing what music is, what the roots are, what it can mean to you and to us. Each concert, I am hoping audiences can take away not only entertainment but something meaningful to think about afterward about the global world we're living in and the diversity of all of us."

Cristina Pato, who plays the gaita and piano, says her work with the ensemble has changed her perspective on culture, the impact of the arts on community and the importance of education. She also speaks in terms of family.

"Generosity and curiosity are probably the most common values in the Silk Road Project family, starting with our mentor Yo-Yo Ma," says Pato, who is from Spain. "The most important thing for me is that the Silk Road Ensemble has been able to create a family with members from Iran, India, Spain, Israel, Syria, the U.S., China, Japan and Korea. It has created its own community of respect and shared values, including music. Music, education, inspiration, life: This is for me the Silk Road Project and all those values are, I hope, what we contribute to the world, to communities."

For Ma, the mission takes place at the string level -- or at the level of every instrument's sound -- and it extends to his larger vision for the company and community.

"Over the last 15 years, the Silk Road Project has enabled teachers, artists and institutions from all over the world to collaborate in exciting new ways," he says. "I am grateful for the support of Harvard, and all of the individuals, corporations, foundations and government agencies, whose contributions have been indispensible.Together we are creating an environment where creativity can flourish."

Learn more about Silk Road -- the ensemble, the history, the project. Watch interviews with Silk Road Ensemble musicians.

[Caption: The Silk Road Ensemble]

[Caption: Wu Man]

[Caption: Cristina Pato]