Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Yo-Yo: speaking softly and carrying a big cello

Yo-Yo Ma was in town yesterday to rehearse the Shostakovich 2nd Cello Concerto, and there were dozens of people there to listen. It's always a little disconcerting to come for an orchestra rehearsal and find you have an audience. Especially when the piece in question is still a little ragged and awkward sounding, since we had just read it that morning. But from the first notes of the concerto, which Yo-Yo starts alone, the piece really started taking shape, and it was thrilling to bring it into focus, and watch it come alive. Yo-Yo's very presence seems to demand an audience - it's not that he acts like a celebrity, but he performs with a kind of focus and poise that draws your attention to every sound and gesture.

I'll never forget hearing Yo-Yo play Don Quixote with the Philadelphia Orchestra, in a live television broadcast a couple of years ago. In that performance, he seemed to completely inhabit the character he was playing - it wasn't just fantastic cello playing, it was phenomenal acting. This piece is similar in its strong characters and moods. Yo-Yo talked to the orchestra at one point, and I think this was what he was explaining: how the piece actually explores different levels of reality, from an inner world of great introspection and melancholy, to a very exuberant march, to music of great passion and anger. He actually talked so softly, it was impossible to understand every word. In this light, whispery voice he talked about this lost, wandering kind of mood he wanted to create.

It was the kind of voice that makes you lean forward in your seat, and strain to hear. I'm pretty sure we would have done this even if he wasn't a world famous soloist. I think being such a celebrity must be a challenge: people come to hear Yo-Yo, not to hear Shostakovich or whatever other piece he might be playing. It seems to me, though, that his way of making music is to really disappear into whatever he is playing. That was the sense I had even when he talked - as long as we got his message and idea, he would be happy to not be noticed at all.

Our concert with Yo-Yo Ma will be February 24th at the Carnival Center. We're also playing the program on February 27th in Carnegie Hall. I'll write more as those concerts approach!

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