Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Night I Talked To Yo-Yo Ma

So tonight I went to a wonderful concert by Yo-Yo Ma, with piano accompanist Kathryn Stott. I initially failed to get tickets before it sold out, but I was lucky enough to find someone selling an extra. Turned out to be a pretty good seat, even; 29th row, nearly dead center. Not a seat you'd necessarily sell your mother to get, but in the IU Auditorium even the seats back that far have very good sightlines, and the sound was very good as well (except for the guy next to me who kept scratching his beard and rubbing his face, making all kinds of annoying little noises - ugh).

(Click the image of the program to see it big enough to read.) The opening piece, a Schubert sonata, worked well as an opener - it felt comfortable, a bit familiar, but lovely; a good way to ease into the evening. After it ended they let in a whole herd of latecomers (people! Seriously! How hard is it to get to a concert by 8 pm? Some of them may have had good excuses, but there were a LOT of 'em) and as they were hustled to their seats Yo-Yo Ma chatted with the folks in the front rows, laughing, charming and relaxed. Then the Shostakovich, my favorite of the night - very textural, with some interesting pizzicato and percussive stuff, lots of interesting darknesses and lots of times when I found myself just not breathing because only perfect stillness was possible. Then an Argentinian tango by Piazzolla, which was terrific too, very different in tone from what preceded it - actually all three pieces in the first half felt very different from one another. The tango wasn't like a standard traditional tango; it was more tango-flavored, tango-based. Rich and full and layered.

The second half wasn't quite as spectacular as the first for me, but it was great - some very romantic, lovely music. Over and over again I marveled at Ma's absolute control of his tone, and how he made it look effortless as breath. The accompanist, Kathryn Stott, was very good too; in fact I had a flash of insight about what accompaniment means for a solo musician - it's like the piano provides a textured canvas, a surface to support the soloist as he plays on and above and around and sometimes dipping briefly beneath the surface. Yeah, musicians probably understand how that works pretty instinctively, but until tonight I don't think I'd ever really gotten the difference between playing a duet versus a soloist playing with an accompanist.

Standing ovation at the end, of course, prolonged, until both musicians came back out for a bow and then returned again to perform an encore. The first encore was actually one of my favorite pieces of the night - jazz-inflected (turns out it was written by a Brazilian jazz composer and was called "Cristal" - I'm going to track it down somehow) and obviously a lot of fun to play. The second encore was a piece by Elgar (don't know the name, but I'll probably be able to find it in a review somewhere tomorrow) and it ended the concert on a light note - not light as in insubstantial, but light as in light-hearted. When Ma and Stott came out for one final bow (sans cello) he didn't have a microphone so he couldn't say anything to the audience but he kept touching his chest over his heart, waving, gesturing with great appreciation and happiness, waving with both hands high over his head as he finally left the stage. Afterwards, I looked around at faces on the way out of the auditorium and people were just glowing, smiling, joyful.

It reminded me of leaving a Bruce Springsteen concert, actually. That level of pure joy and satisfaction, feeling that a musician has been generous with their time and energy, that feeling of a connection being made from the stage. The moments of looking into others' faces and having, for just a moment, that shared experience, the acknowledgement that you've shared something remarkable. So remarkable you don't even really have words for it, so you just look at each other and glow, and smile.

I've now seen three performers who reached this level of absolute presence in every moment of their performance, and absolute connection with the audience: Yo-Yo Ma, Bruce Springsteen, and the Dalai Lama. That's a heck of a trinity, there. :)

* * * * *

So I left the auditorium walking on air, feeling like I'd just been a bird for two hours. As I headed for my car (I'd found a great parking spot in the library lot), I noticed a little crowd of people hanging around outside near the backstage door. Maybe about forty people. Hmmmm, I thought, and decided oh what the heck, turned around and went back to the auditorium and joined the crowd. Sometimes I do indulge my inner fangirl. Not so inner, I guess. :) After maybe ten or fifteen minutes - not too terribly long - a woman came out carrying the cello in its case, and an audible sigh went up through the crowd (which was made up of mostly music students, I think). Ahhhhhhhhhh! The Cello! It was both funny and kind of adorable.

A couple of minutes later the backstage doors swung open and Yo-Yo Ma himself came out. The crowd erupted in applause and he smiled, took it in. He came over towards us and said that since there were so many people he wouldn't do autographs and photos, but instead would rather talk with us for about two minutes if anyone had any questions for him. One eager young man asked if he would sign just one autograph; Ma was kind but firm, saying if he did one he'd have to do everyone and there wasn't time for that. (You could tell he's done this more than a few times before.) He walked around, arms outspread, and asked again if anyone had questions.

Bunch of music students gone speechless. :) Probably most of them were trying to come up with a really fantastic question, one that would inspire Ma to drop some great musicianly insights, and make the questioner look really smart too. (I've known a lot of music students in my time. They are, in general, as competitive as students come. Which isn't a slam on them; in their field, they have to be.) So I, with nothing to lose, piped up and asked, "Which was your favorite piece to play tonight?" Several of the music students around me murmured, "oooohhhhh, good question!" Now, you'll almost never get a straight answer to that question out of any musician, but sometimes it leads them to talk about what they like about the music they play. Yo-Yo Ma looked right at me and said that he just tried to stay really in the moment with each piece; that it's such intimate music, and such a big hall, that he tries to make a connection with everyone in the audience so that they feel like they're in his living room. Although, he noted, his living room isn't anywhere near that big. :) He didn't name a favorite, but said that he really loves all of that music - and you could tell that he really does, that after all these years he is still head over heels in love with music.

He asked us what our favorite pieces had been; a lot of people said the tango, several of us said the Shostakovich. I love that he made it a two-way conversation and not so much "rockstar cellist gets interviewed by the fan gang."

He talked about the Franck that he'd played, told us that it had been written as a wedding gift and that the four movements were meant to tell the story of a romantic relationship. He talked about how amazing it would be to get a beautiful sonata as a wedding gift. Again - his absolute love for this music was just so clear, and his eagerness to share some cool bit of knowledge about the music was lovely to see.

Someone asked him which cello he'd played tonight; for the cello geeks, it was the 1733 Montagnana. (I don't even want to begin to imagine how much that beautiful beast is insured for. I can't even imagine that its value can be put into dollars.) And someone asked him what the encores had been, since they weren't printed in the program. (I was glad somebody asked that!) "Any more questions?" Someone asked, "Will you come back?" to which he responded that yes, he would. (Yay! Soon, I hope!) And someone else asked, "When are you going to collaborate with Willie Nelson?" He laughed and said "Hey, he's one of my heroes!" Which just made me grin so big. He said a few other things, asked if most people there were music students, said something about it being a beautiful night. It certainly was.

Then as we applauded him again, he got in the SUV and was driven slowly away, hanging out the window waving to fans as he left. He was clearly still on a post-performance high, and came across as being very happy, very gracious, very appreciative of his fans (who clearly appreciate him in return), and very much in his element. I'm so glad I decided to hang around and do the fangirl thing - it was a nice experience, getting to ask Yo-Yo Ma a question (omg!) and have him look right at me and respond to it (omfg!!!). The man is about as big a star as you get in the classical music world, and he could not have been nicer to that little gang of fans out there.

And the concert? The concert was pure magic.

A beautiful night, indeed.


Rachel M. Slough said...

Thanks for sharing this! I love how you described the concert, and am tickled by your question story :) We were pretty high up, but I was struck by how kind he seemed to be and how much he seemed to love what he was doing. Your post-show experience confirms that, which is even nicer.

I also really like how you describe the role of the accompanist, and wish music students were required to read it. I did some accompanying on the side until I got here into Jacobsland (and hope to return to it someday--so rewarding), and I can say that, even for many very good students, it's not always clear to them what the pianist behind them is doing. You nailed it.

Oh,suuuch a good show :)

Patrick said...

His second encore was "Salut d'Amour" (you're correct about the composer -- Elgar). It was a thrill to be his page-turner! (But also, quite nerve wracking).

Thanks for your blog post. (My friend Rachel Slough put me on to it).

Leslie said...

I live near Tanglewood--the summer home of the Boston Symphony. Yo-Yo Ma comes at least once every summer. The shed is a huge pie-shaped wedge open all along the curved edge with the orchestra at the point. There are acres of lawns around the shed and I always bring a picnic and blanket and get lawn tickets.

One summer we left my (then) husband sleeping on the blanket and went wandering around after Yo-Yo Ma was done playing. We found him over on the far side of the shed, just hanging out and chatting with people. We talked with him a little bit (totally fan girl) and he signed our programs. He was (is) a lovely, gracious, real human.

Of course, when we woke the husband up later and told him we'd met Yo-Yo Ma, he didn't believe us.

If you are ever in my part of the world in the summer, I highly recommend Tanglewood. It is magical to sprawl on a green lawn, with a lake in the distance, and dusk coming on, and then the orchestra tunes up and then the conductor walks on, and then magic happens in the summer nights. The last time I was there, Itzak Perlman played Stravinsky's Firebird. At the first note from his violin I started to weep. It was that beautiful.

Matthew Thorburn said...

What a great story -- and good question to ask! I'm glad to hear that he's such a nice guy; that's the impression I get from seeing him (on TV or on the stage). I heard him play about a year ago at Lincoln Center, with his Silk Road Project, and was blown away. He not only plays so amazingly well, but really looks like he's enjoying it so much.

Jessie Carty said...

this is such a fantastic blog post Anne. I feel like I was there! I felt myself smiling as you described the encores.

Congrats on sticking around and asking a question.

oh, and I especially love how you describe how having the piano as accompaniment worked.

i recently helped with a play (actually a dramatic interp of a poetry chapbook!) and i had to stand at the door so that people wouldn't walk in until scene changes. yikes people! one person showed up an HOUR late

Lyle Daggett said...

Loved reading this. I've never heard Yo-Yo Ma perform live, though have heard many recordings, seen him on T.V., etc. I love hearing him play.

Elgar is Edward Elgar, a British composer, lived 1857 to 1934, considered one of the major classical composers of Britain. His surpassingly famous piece of music is "Pomp and Circumstance" -- yes, the one that's played at graduations every year. Edward Elgar wrote that.

Actually Elgar's full work "Pomp and Circumstance" is a much longer work, written in five sections -- the piece that's played at graduations is a portion of (I believe) the fourth section. He wrote much other music too.

The Franck sonata, as the program indicated, was originally written for violin (rather than cello) and piano -- a standard transcription for cello was done at some point by another composer, with Franck's approval. A few years back, there was a T.V. commercial (for insurance or something) featuring an enraptured Snoopy (the dog from "Peanuts") playing the Franck violin sonata, on violin, with Schroeder accompanying on piano.

Word verification is "remorie" -- possibly a blend of memory and reverie, which seems entirely in keeping with the discussion here.

Anne said...

Thanks, all!

Rachel - glad I seem to have gotten the soloist/accompanist relationship right. It was a "lightbulb moment" for me.

Patrick - wow, lucky you to be the page-turner! No pressure at all, I'm sure - only the biggest rockstar in classical music and a sold-out Auditorium watching. ;) I have to admit I didn't really notice you, but then, that's probably how it's supposed to be! I hope it was a good experience.

Leslie - I've heard of Tanglewood for years and it always sounds magical. Maybe someday...