Friday, February 23, 2007

Yo-Yo on crossing the divide

Yo-Yo Ma's master class the other day was very much about crossing the divide between audience and performer. Yo-Yo himself was constantly bridging that gap, hopping up onto the stage and then sitting back in the first row of seats. He told one of the cellists to maintain eye contact with him and a group of audience members throughout the exposition of the Dvorak Concerto. Not only was she able to do it, smiling and laughing all the while, but her performance had an added brilliance and projection that it had lacked before.

The point wasn't that we should be making eyes with audience members, but that we're involved in conveying something, and the people receiving it are an integral part of the process. Another cellist played the same concerto, and was visibly frustrated that a passage of 16th-notes hadn't come off as he'd planned. Even though, as Yo-Yo pointed out, he and most everyone in the audience hadn't seen or heard any mistake. These things we worry about so much as performers, the fingerings and articulations we mean to execute, are rarely as prominent in the listener's attention. It might seem that the listener's perceptions are too much out of control, too intangible to worry about, when we have bowings and shifts to organize. And yet, when a performance really takes flight, it's because the performer has thought beyond those basic elements, to what Yo-Yo called "transcendent technique".

The paradoxical thing about this "transcendence" is that we often have to get away from our instrument to achieve it. We have to sing, dance, study, and absorb the piece's underlying meaning, and only then can we really grasp the content of what we're communicating. All four of the cellists who played in the master class sounded fantastic, and yet in each case Yo-Yo urged them towards deeper involvement, more comprehensive understanding, a greater emotional, psychological and even spiritual connection with the music - and with the audience across the divide.

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