Yo-Yo Ma’s ensem­ble at heart of doc­u­men­tary

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - Showtime - South Broward - - MOVIES - By Ken­neth Tu­ran

With a doc­u­men­tary called “The Mu­sic of Strangers: Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensem­ble,” there’s no doubt­ing that won­der­ful sounds will be in store. But that’s not all that’s on of­fer.

For, as di­rected by Mor­gan Neville, “Strangers” turns out to be as con­cerned with emo­tion as with per­for­mance, spend­ing much of its time in­ves­ti­gat­ing how so much joy­ous mu­sic was able to come out of ex­plo­ration, dis­tur­bance, even pain.

At the cen­ter of every­thing is 60-year-old cel­list Ma, one of his gen­er­a­tion’s most pro­lific and pop­u­lar clas­si­cal artists, with more than 90 al­bums and 18 Grammy wins to his credit.

“Strangers” is the story of how and why in the year 2000 this con­sum­mate mu­si­cian de­cided to branch out into un­ex­pected ar­eas and cre­ate the Silk Road Ensem­ble, an in­ter­na­tional mu­sic col­lec­tive that has pro­duced six al­bums and given con­certs seen by 2 mil­lion peo­ple in 33 coun­tries. And di­rec­tor Neville is very much the film­maker for the job of telling it.

Best known for his Os­car­win­ning “20 Feet From Star­dom,” Neville has made any num­ber of mu­sic­themed doc­u­men­taries, in­clud­ing the Grammy-nom­i­nated trio “Re­spect Your­self: The Stax Records Story,” “Muddy Wa­ters: Can’t Be Sat­is­fied” and “Johnny Cash’s Amer­ica.”

Neville is as ex­pert at get­ting the hu­man sto­ries be­hind the songs as he is in cap­tur­ing the mu­sic. Work­ing with edi­tors He­len Kearns and Ja­son Zeldes, he’s also ex­pe­ri­enced enough to en­gag­ingly blend “Strangers’ ” nu­mer­ous nar- MPAA rat­ing: Not rated Run­ning time: 1 hour, 36 min­utes Play­ing: In lim­ited re­lease ra­tive strands.

It all be­gins with Ma, a former child prodigy who’s per­formed for eight pres­i­dents and can be seen, in a de­light­ful clip, up­stag­ing Leonard Bern­stein with a very se­ri­ous face when he was just 7.

Yet be­cause he started so young, Ma, bril­liant as he was, couldn’t help feel­ing, “I never com­mit­ted to be­ing a mu­si­cian, I just fell into it.” As friend and com­poser John Wil­liams puts it, Ma faced a typ­i­cal child prodigy prob­lem: “How do you keep your in­ter­est up?”

Mak­ing things more dif­fi­cult was the toll Ma’s ex­ten­sive tour­ing — he es­ti­mates he has spent 22 of the 35 years he’s been mar­ried on the road — took on his life. “I was so anx­ious, I threw up be­fore every trip,” the mu­si­cian re­ports, and his son, Ni­cholas, says he ini­tially thought his fa­ther worked for the air­port be­cause he was al­ways go­ing there.

Ma talks with feel­ing about his search for pur- pose and his in­ten­tion to be in con­trol of his life. Those goals, com­bined with Ma’s be­lief that cre­ativ­ity comes from cul­tures in­ter­sect­ing, led to an event one par­tic­i­pant called “the Man­hat­tan Project of mu­sic.”

That was 10 days of work­shops held in 2000 at Tan­gle­wood in Lenox, Mass., that Ma de­scribes as “mu­si­cians get­ting to­gether to see what hap­pens when strangers meet.” Though the col­lab­o­ra­tion was at first ten­ta­tive, it was fi­nally so sat­is­fy­ing that Ma de­ter­mined it had to go on, and the Silk Road Ensem­ble was born.

As won­der­ful as this mu­sic is to ex­pe­ri­ence - the open-air per­for­mance in Is­tan­bul that starts things off is es­pe­cially in­fec­tious - “Strangers” does not shy from ac­knowl­edg­ing that the phi­los­o­phy be­hind this mu­si­cal meld­ing was ini­tially crit­i­cized by some for be­ing im­pure, a kind of cul­tural tourism.

Help­ing to coun­ter­bal­ance that is the film’s fo­cus on a quar­tet of the Silk Road Ensem­ble’s more than 20 play­ers, mini-bios of vir­tu­osos from all over who share an at­trac­tion for the wider world.


Yo-Yo Ma, famed cel­list and founder of the Silk Road Ensem­ble.

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