When Wei Yang and Betty Xiang left Shanghai for the U.S. in 1996, they couldn’t wait to collaborate with Western musicians. Members of the prestigious Shanghai National Orchestra since the early 80s–Yang on the lutelike pipa and Xiang on a two-stringed relative of the violin called the erhu–the husband and wife were tired of a repertoire limited to traditional classical Chinese music. While touring Europe and southeast Asia in the early 90s they’d met Western classical musicians and heard a wider range of music, and the experience had given them ideas.

“In China it seemed like we knew things, but it was just what we were told,” says Yang. “What we knew there was actually kind of narrow. We were eager to do something more.”

But when Yang and Xiang play at Symphony Hall this weekend they won’t be performing only the Western compositions that lured them overseas, but music from across Asia–traditional Chinese and Mongolian songs as well as newly commissioned pieces from Iran and Azerbaijan. They’ll appear with the Silk Road Ensemble, part of an ambitious project launched in 1998 by celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma to explore the traditions of the countries along the Silk Road, an ancient trade route stretching from China to the Mediterranean along which different musical styles were brought into contact. So far the project has been a success: the Western elements of the ensemble’s music make the work accessible to a large audience–and Ma has the star power to bring in the masses.

The ensemble draws from a pool of nearly four dozen musicians, most of them masters in their native traditions; lineups are based on the musicians’ schedules and the pieces to be performed. The project has commissioned the work of younger composers from countries such as Turkey, Tajikistan, Iran, India, and Armenia, but a lot of what I’ve heard is an effete fusion where the Western influence dominates. Some of the new pieces, however–like Chinese composer Zhao Jiping’s “Moon Over Guan Mountains”–arrange folk motifs in a way that combines the best of both Eastern and Western traditions.

While the ensemble is the public face of the Silk Road Project, Ma’s organization also sponsors activities designed to connect various museums, arts organizations, composers, and musicians from around the world. There’s also an educational component: in conjunction with the ensemble’s residency at Symphony Center this week there has been a series of gallery walks at the Art Institute as well as lectures and performances related to the music and art of the Silk Road countries. And in addition to the ensemble’s debut, Silk Road Journeys (on which Yang performed), the project has also released The Silk Road: A Musical Caravan (Smithsonian Folkways), a two-disc set of ethnomusicological recordings.

Yang and Xiang’s participation in the project is the culmination of six years’ work. The couple settled briefly in Texas with Yang’s sister in 1996; that same year they were invited by a Taiwanese community group to play at a convention at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and they decided to settle in the western suburb of Streamwood. They were restarting their careers from scratch–neither spoke English or had established professional connections in the U.S.–but they quickly made progress, first performing for schoolchildren and giving music lessons, then playing at venues such as the School of the Art Institute. There are few professional Chinese musicians in Chicago, says Yang, so they soon became the people to turn to when traditional Chinese music was needed.

Their breakthrough came in 1999 when they opened the Chicago World Music Festival, performing the U.S. national anthem. (They also played as members of the Immigrant Orchestra, a multiethnic group organized by composer and accordionist Willy Schwarz.) Their rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” led Mervon Mehta, the director of programming for Ravinia, to invite them to perform there in June 2000. As part of “Bachanalia,” an event commemorating the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death, Yang and Xiang played pipa and erhu on a program that also included musicians from the jazz, tango, and country worlds.

That same month Yang got a call from Esther Won, executive director of the Silk Road Project; veteran composer Jian-er Zhu, an old acquaintance of the couple’s from China who’d been commissioned to write a piece for the ensemble, had recommended them to her. Yang auditioned over the phone, playing a difficult 20-minute-long pipa composition. “After I finished I picked up the phone and said, ‘OK?’ They said ‘Yes, thank you’ and ‘Bye-bye,’ and then they hung up. I felt lost.” His disappointment was short-lived–a half hour or so later Won called back and invited him to Tanglewood, where he and dozens of other musicians began rehearsing and developing the Silk Road Ensemble’s repertoire. Yang admits that he didn’t initially know what Tanglewood or the Silk Road Project were. And when Won didn’t inquire about his fees, he asked her, “As a professional musician I make a living from music, so will I get paid?”

Yang joined the ensemble for its 2001 east-coast tour; shortly afterward Xiang joined as well. It has opened professional doors for both of them–last week they performed at New York’s hallowed Merkin Hall with the Amelia Piano Trio–but it has also exposed them to a wider variety of music than they ever imagined. “After I joined the program I heard lots of amazing music,” says Yang. “China is a big country, and there are lots of different tribes. Some of them are very close to Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Mongolia, so we knew some things like that, but most of it was new to us.” The couple have also collaborated with international musicians in looser settings. For an NPR feature on the Silk Road Project, Yang jammed with several Iranian musicians, while this past July, Xiang improvised with Indian musicians for a Silk Road concert at the Smithsonian.

The project has also allowed them to share their traditional music with other musicians and audiences. “China has a very rich culture, [but] it’s only known to the Chinese community. Our ambition has been to share some of our culture with the West. Since the Silk Road Project approached us, we’ve done that–this is what we really wanted.”

The Silk Road Ensemble performs Friday night and Sunday afternoon as well as in an interactive, family-oriented performance on Saturday that will examine the instruments of the Silk Road and their cultural roles. Yang and Xiang will play with the group on Saturday and Sunday. See music listings for more details.

Send gripes, leads, and love letters to Peter Margasak at postnobills@chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.