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Making a musical connection

Commingling cultures
By JOHNETTE RODRIGUEZ  |  March 4, 2009

In 1998, world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma envisioned connecting artists and audiences around the world by focusing on the cultures along the historic 4000-mile Silk Road trade route that once connected Asia and Europe. Ma's Silk Road Project, with a wide-ranging collective of artists known as the Silk Road Ensemble, moved its headquarters to Providence in 2005, expanding a working relationship with the Rhode Island School of Design into a multi-year collaboration. Since that time, the Project has presented semester-long residencies and numerous workshops geared toward RISD students.

But this winter, another kind of collaboration is taking place, sponsored by FirstWorks, at five local high schools: Beacon Charter High School for the Arts (Woonsocket); JMW School for the Performing and Visual Arts (Pawtucket); Central Falls High School (Central Falls); Hope High School (Providence); and the Textron/Chamber of Commerce Providence Public Charter School. Taking a three-pronged approach of arts learning, arts creation, and arts presentation, FirstWorks has partnered with teams of teachers at each school.

For the first part of the two-month program, the teachers used two chapters from a curriculum developed by the Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education and the Silk Road Project. The students concentrated on the history and geography of the Silk Road and on the music of the region.

For the "arts creation" segment, FirstWorks brought in teaching artists, including the Angkor Dance Troupe from Lowell, Massachusetts, and Silk Road Ensemble member Yang Wei from Chicago, who plays a Chinese short-necked lute called a pipa.

"What we're trying to do is give the kids a more substantive experience, rather than a one-off workshop," explained Siobhan Callahan, projects and education coordinator at FirstWorks. "We're drawing in different disciplines and giving the kids a broader sense of the world, both ancient and contemporary. And we're trying to show how cultural ideas are shared and don't belong to any one country or ethnicity."

The third component of the collaboration with the Silk Road Project is a special demonstration workshop by YoYo Ma and members of the Silk Road Ensemble on March 4 at the RISD Auditorium.

"We went one step further than just having them attend a performance," noted FirstWorks executive director Kathleen Pletcher. "We put together a special event for these high school students, in an intimate setting, to hear about the different instruments and how they sound played individually and together."

Pletcher related an anecdote from Yang Mei's recent appearance at Hope High School. After his talk, a student asked, "Do you know any reggae? Can I come up and play with you?" And so he did, on guitar, with Yang Wei on pipa, "commingling their cultures," in Pletcher's words.

"What FirstWorks is trying to do with education is to get exactly that kind of multi-point experience," she emphasized. "There's incredible power to the arts and creativity, so the combination of what happens in the schools and bringing the students together with the artists — I think it's a tremendous model.

"FirstWorks will be building on this as we expand into year-round programming," Pletcher affirmed, "and the Silk Road is a fabulous way to kick this off."

The Silk Road Ensemble will perform on Friday, March 6 at the Providence Performing Arts Center (401.421.2787 or Also consult for follow-ups in their "Silk Road Season."

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