Yo-Yo Ma Reminiscences

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Yo-Yo Ma Reminiscences

Postby pianoman » Thu Jun 12, 2014 7:55 pm

There is probably no Asian classical musician more well-known than Yo-Yo Ma. He will turn 59 this year, and I can think of no better topic to jump start this forum than an open retrospective on Yo-Yo Ma and his music: When did you first realize who he was? What was the first work you heard him perform? What are some of your favorite recordings? Are there any performances that stand out in your memory? Why? How has his music affected you in your life?

Consider this an exercise in subjective history.

Ma rehearsing for Obama's inauguration in 2009:
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Re: Yo-Yo Ma Reminiscences

Postby pianoman » Thu Jun 12, 2014 9:53 pm

My first real awareness of Yo-Yo Ma came the summer before I began high school, while attending the arts camp Interlochen in Northern Michigan. I was there for visual art, not music. I don’t remember the details of the arrangement, but students at the camp were offered a number of performances either for free or for a very small sum—maybe $10. There were a lot of student recitals, orchestras and plays. Then there was a schedule of professional acts. For the “big-name” concerts, one had to either reserve a ticket or pay one or two weeks in advance.

The attendees of the camp were organized in cabins. The cabins each had two head councilors that slept in private compartments in the front of the cabin, to the right and left of the cabin entrance. During the bustle of some interlude between meals and structured activity, one of our head councilors ventured into the main part of the cabin with a piece of paper or a clipboard. It was a semi-routine event: there were “big” concerts scheduled weekly, if I remember correctly, and our councilors literally just asked us if we wanted to attend them.

I should probably reiterate here that I was enrolled in the visual art program at the insistence of my parents, that Interlochen was then and is still now mostly a music camp, and that I actually despised classical music at the time. I had a plastic audio cassette carrying case with me whose highlights were the first Tribe Called Quest album, Prince’s Graffiti Bridge (not the Prince album you want to admit to listening to when you were a kid) and, if I am not mistaken, about four hours of Vangelis, which was given to me by someone I don’t remember for reasons I don’t recall.

At any rate, I don’t remember answering any questions that day in the affirmative, which should not have been a surprise to anyone since I attended very few concerts. But, for some reason, there was something different about that day. Most of my fellow cabin-mates procured their $10 almost as a matter of course, as if there wasn’t even anything to discuss or think about. And the councilor made a point of asking me twice to make sure I didn’t want to change my mind. “If you want a ticket you have until X day to buy one,” I think he said, finally. The performer in question was, of course, Yo-Yo Ma.

There were a couple reasons for my reluctance. First, I had only recently been freed from a long, torturous obligation to study the violin, and having never heard Ma play (or seen a picture of him play) was under the general impression that he was a violinist. To this day I see no beauty in the violin as an instrument, only a brutal, high-pitched, cloying slide-rule of finger positions. But I think the bigger reason is that I saw nothing particularly exceptional about an Asian person who played the violin. Almost every Asian kid I knew played the violin or took piano lessons. From my perspective, I couldn’t understand why my cabin-mates were in such a hurry to see this particular Asian perform classical music when there were literally thousands of them being churned off an assembly line somewhere onto glossy album covers or other promotional material.

A few of the other kids in my cabin approached me about my decision. “Are you really not going to the Yo-Yo Ma concert?” they asked, incredulously. One member of our cabin was actually a cellist, a very intense blonde kid about a year older than I was. His recital was one of the few musical offerings I attended that summer. The guy was so single-minded about his cello playing that many of the other campers avoided interacting with him, and I felt bad for him when he asked if I would come to his recital. In a small classroom with temporary seating and no stage, I watched him perform something incredibly complicated while his upper lip twitched furiously to every inflection of the music. When I brushed off his question about the Ma concert, he entreated, just as furiously: “But it’s Yo-Yo Ma!”

The day of the concert I was more or less aware that Ma was playing, but none too concerned. I believe the show was scheduled for the afternoon, and began something like a half-hour or hour after lunch wrapped up in the cafeteria. I was relatively confident that, despite the apparent popularity of this Yo-Yo Ma character, there would be a few stragglers around to drum up some kind of idle activity. I walked back up the hill to the cabin. I don’t remember when the actual realization hit, but at some point it became obvious that I was completely alone. I wandered out of the cabin onto the campgrounds. There, too, an eerie blanket of silence greeted me at every turn. Not only were there no other kids around, there were no adults, no staff. I could literally hear the grass rustling around me. I think I ended up walking to the camp store, buying a package of fruit-flavored gummi rings, and eating the entire package on some steps facing Lake Michigan, by myself.

Several years later, during college, when I heard a segment on public radio about Ma’s Piazzola album, this story was still filed in my brain under “Yo-Yo Ma.” While I still predominantly listened to popular forms of music, I had been constantly in search of stranger and more interesting groups and artists, and Piazzola’s tangos—slightly sinister and musically complex—actually cross-referenced my taste profile quite nicely. Around this time I remember making a mix tape I considered to be a personal coup that included Nina Hagen’s “Antiworld” and culminated—absolutely culminated—in Jethro Tull’s “Budapest.”

The first track I gravitated towards was “Fugata,” perhaps presaging my obsession with fugues and Bach. The length of the subject, its range and rhythmic originality, stood out to me. I would play it for my friends and, when the piano enters in the upper register like a slasher movie at the climax, would flail my arms around like I was conducting. In those days, we spent hours mining piles of music—anything we could get our hands on—for moments like that. The subtlety and real emotional nuance of the album I would only understand later, after several more listenings. At first, I would skip over the next track, “Tango Remembrances,” because I didn’t like the bandoneon part and felt it was too prominent in the mix. Only later did I realize it was a recording of the composer himself, with Ma weaving in and out in accompaniment. I now consider it not only the best track on the album, but one of the great peculiarities of recorded music; the final 1’48” especially are as evocative, sustained, and musically economical as anything else in recorded history, in any genre. If the first half of the album inclines toward a broader audience, there is a level of abstraction and understatement in the second half—particularly in “Mumuki,” “Milonga del Angel,” and “Café 1930”—that almost gets lost in the overload of musical signifiers up to that point. Every time I listen to these recordings, I am struck by how easy it would have been to perform them wrong or badly.

Not long after Soul of the Tango, Ma came out with his second version of the Bach Cello Suites, which could be purchased in audio form or with their accompanying film versions. At the time, I had a friend who had acquired the classical music bug, and I would go with him to the classical music store to look for CDs. This is the same friend who introduced me to Glenn Gould. I remember the Inspired by Bach project being heavily promoted in the store. Copies of the CD set (in the foldout cardstock case—the jewel box version came out later) were stacked in a cardboard retail display unit. At this particular store, the album was made available on a listening station with headphones. I was curious, and my friend was busy sifting through the other bins of CDs. I listened to the prelude of Suite No. 1 in its entirety at the store and, with the lingering memory of Interlochen, thought: “I had better see what this is about.”

The Suites contain a lot of music, and I didn’t understand them entirely at first, if this is even possible—I am sure that several people have made studying them their life’s work. But the first thing I noticed is that they were not entirely unfamiliar. Indeed, the Courante and Gigue from No. 1 and the Bouree from No. 3 are part of the Suzuki Method for violin (transcribed and somewhat simplified, of course). There are many factors that I attribute to my dismal failure as a violinist that I will not go into here. But one of them was my lack of interest in the majority of the music I was asked, by a string of frustrated instructors, to play. By the end of my six or seven-year career as an Asian stereotype, I was playing obscure student concertos, music that was apparently never intended to be listened to by anyone, composed with something other than musical merit in mind. I don’t remember the names printed on the tanish-yellow Schirmer’s Library covers, but whoever they are they deserve to have the butt-end of a ¾ size violin smashed across their technical faces. As the exercises became more and more pedantic, I yearned, without knowing what to call it, for the Bach of those early Suzuki years, for music that made some goddamn sense.

With Inspired by Bach, I learned about Bach’s Suite structure, the various dance forms and their origins, etc. I even bought a copy of the film accompaniment for Suites 5 and 6. I don’t think I’ve watched either without a good deal of fast forwarding, and I am aware that a number of critics have panned the whole thing for its indulgences, but they do have their moments. The shots of Ma playing No. 6 on the median of a New York intersection with his cello case open for donations is somewhat predictable, but interesting because they actually did it and filmed it. I am no expert in figure skating, but I can’t imagine that anyone has done more with the art form outside of the Winter Olympics than Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean in, say, the routine for the Allemande. I start to withhold judgment when they begin tossing babies into the air for the Gigue.

I own copies of the Casals, Rostropovich, and Wispelwey versions of the Suites, as well as Ma’s first 1983 version, all based on my initial exposure to that 1998 version. One thing I realized early is that the Prelude from Suite No. 1 doesn’t work well as a means of comparison, as they vary widely in interpretation and tend not to be representative of what follows. I am aware of the importance of Casals to modern cello technique and to the rediscovery of the Suites in the 20th century. However, from a listener’s perspective, his sense of rhythm lacks steadiness and he tended to hold notes for emphasis to an extent that is probably not permissible today. Wispelway has a level of control of the instrument that is rare, yet he plays the Suites as if slightly bored with them, innovating horizontally instead of vertically, if you will. I find the Rostropovich to be very similar to Ma’s 1983 version—both rightfully and successfully approach the Suites as polyphonic music. The Ma displays perhaps a wider range of expressive tools, the Rostropovich perhaps a grander vision.

But neither threatens to take the place in my library that Ma’s 1998 version occupies. At some point, I read on the Internet that the 1998 version is tuned a half-step lower, to 415hz, and that this may be closer to what Bach actually intended. This accounts for the shock one experiences in side-by-side comparisons—the 1998 Ma is loose, reverberant, big-toned; standard versions tend to be tighter-wound and tonally focused, but at the same time more nasal. But this is not the only difference. The 1998 version is mellowed and aged. There are no runaway passages here. The technical range of 1983 has been widened and purified—from the softest whispers to driving vibratos that strain the wood, plucky staccato playing to lush bowed runs up and down the fingerboard, a strategically placed harmonic, the metallic rush of an overloaded string, double-stops so detailed they become ornamental. All of this, and yet in the 1998 version the physical instrument itself seems incidental to the music. In 1983, Ma is still playing the Cello, however brilliantly; in 1998, he channels the music through it. When I finally came around to discovering classical music on my own terms, I spent about two years listening almost exclusively to Glenn Gould playing Bach. One of the exceptions was Ma’s 1998 version of the Cello Suites, at 415hz, flying babies optional.

I don’t pretend to know all of Ma. There is a lot of standard repertoire that doesn’t interest me, but Ma has recorded enough to overlap almost any niche taste. He has an album that features a stark and ruminative Shostakovich Quartet No. 15 with the add-on of Sofia Gubaidulina’s Rejoice!, recorded with Gidon Kremer, at half the font size. As much as I am an advocate of the Shostakovich Quartets, it is hard for me to look at the album cover without seeing the Gubaidulina listing first and the Shostakovich second. There are other works that play with sequencing, abrupt shifts, non-locality, soft dissonance, ad absurdum continuation—but very few that have as much fun with it as Rejoice! Those who only know Ma from “Vocalise” with Bobby McFerrin may want to save themselves the trauma of listening to this record. There was a period when, in certain moods, I would shut myself in my apartment and play Premieres—the album of contemporary cello concertos by Danielpour, Kirchner, and Rouse—from beginning to end while contemplating my position as a postmodern subject (my postmodernity has a lot of heavy dissonant pounding). The first thing that stands out about Solo is the album cover—a photograph of Ma seated, holding his cello in front of him so that neither his face nor body is visible. For a rare album of solo cello music entitled “Solo,” the soloist himself is presented, as it were, under erasure. This is a distinctly modern gesture for a CD consisting entirely of consciously reconceived folk music, which points to the subtle and little spoken thesis at work here: that folk is modern. The opening O’Conner piece “Appalachia Waltz” and the Kodaly Sonata at the end are strong bookends to an understated, almost aloof middle of Bright Sheng, Wilde, and Tcherepnin that rewards careful, deliberate listening. Of course, no survey of Ma on record would be complete without mentioning some of the misses. In my mind, Songs of Joy and Peace—a Christmas album so benign it has been cleansed of the very word “Christmas”—belongs to a brief period of psychosis on the part of the record industry that includes Bob Dylan’s Christmas from the Heart and Rob Halford’s Winter Songs. I’m sure, though, that it sold well.

Towards the end of the George W. Bush era, I moved to Chicago and suddenly found that the opportunities to make up for that missed concert at Interlochen were fairly abundant. For this solemn occasion, I chose a program in March of 2010 that highlighted Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata in D Minor—a work by Shostakovich I was not familiar with at the time—and included some Schubert, Franck and a couple selections from that Piazzola album that had planted the seed of curiosity so many years ago. The Piazzola actually came out somewhat flat—it would probably have been impossible to capture the spontaneity of the album even if the original group of musicians had been present. However, after the intermission, not knowing that Ma had released a recording of the D minor Sonata in 1990 with Emanuel Ax that is considered by some to be reference, I girded myself for what I was fully hoping would be a musical experience and was not disappointed. I owned that Shostakovich/Gubaidulina album, but that was a string quartet and the cellist’s role is subordinate to the group as a whole. I secretly wondered if Ma—this smiling Harvard Asian—could really pull off Shostakovich’s idiom, his angular dystopia that almost requires a different posture, a different facial expression, as the lead. I heard not only a great work by one of my favorite composers for the first time, but an effortless realization of the score. Ma kept the phrasing straightforward, avoiding the kind of false emotion many romanticists fall victim to in Shostakovich. The chiaroscuro of the third movement was not of the two hearts of man, but of humanity itself versus non-humanity. It was a technical display, too—by the second movement, in which the cello part spends much of its time bowing or plucking all four strings at once, I had been completely disarmed as a critical listener. I could say nothing.

A year later, in January of 2011, I returned for another offering of chamber works by Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Schumann. The program had been determined largely by the musical forces on hand—particularly the clarinetist Anthony McGill, a native Chicagoan who appeared with Ma during the inauguration of President Barack Obama in January of 2009, and Ax on the keyboard. CSO Concertmaster Robert Chen filled in on violin. I actually remember little of the program itself; cello and clarinet are difficult instruments to feature in a single chamber recital. What I do remember were the encores and an aside earlier in the evening. I may have been the only one not to have seen it coming, but the first encore was John Williams’ Obama inauguration spin-off of “Simple Gifts,” half of its original performance cast being in attendance. For me, at least, the piece felt much truer in spirit outside of the political context of its inception, less contrived. Maybe because of this, or because of its political fame, the performance seemed to reach the audience in a way that few classical concerts do today; it was live music as it was meant to be. The feeling was only heightened by the second encore: a rousing, extemporaneous version of “Happy Birthday” performed for one of the CSO musicians taking part in the program that night. This appeared to have been a prank initiated by Ma himself. Finally, earlier in the evening, there was a moment when a draft from the ventilation system seemed to be untimely advancing Robert Chen’s sheet music. Ma attempted twice to hold the page down with his bow during rests without success. The third time, without missing a beat of his own music, he reached into the inside pocket of his suit, removed a pen, and set it on Chen’s music stand against the hastening page.

In February of 2013, as part of an official or semi-official centenary of Polish composer Witold Lutaslawski’s birth, Ma performed the Cello Concerto with the CSO. A work in four connected movements written in 1970 for Rostropovich, the cello is said to represent the individual which must express himself despite attempts by the orchestra, representing the state or society, to drown him out. It begins with the famous repetition of an open D marked “indiferente,” which many have likened to the beeping of an EKG heart monitor. This indifferent “beeping” remains a leitmotif throughout the piece as the cello is jolted through various states of inquisitiveness, reasoning, confusion, anxiety, indignation, panic, anger, despair, and open rebellion. The work uses limited “aleatorics”—or controlled randomness—in the orchestra (most noticeably in the brass section), a technique that Lutaslawski borrowed and refined from John Cage as well as many non-standard symphonic elements such as an extensive piano part, heavy use of percussion, and a harpsichord. The soloist too is pushed to his limit—the writing is all over the fingerboard, with unrestrained use of pizzicato, chord-playing, and glissandos, “indifferent” one minute and impassioned the next. Perhaps the most difficult part of the concerto is the frequent instances when the soloist is asked to play the same note or chord over and over again; since the note is simply repeated, there is no question of “what” to play, only “how” to play it. By 2013, I had seen Ma perform live several times, both in person and on television or video. I never saw him work harder than on that night, giving life to the Lutaslawski Cello Concerto. Here was a man who had recorded virtually the entire cello repertoire, performed with every orchestra in the world, has had awards invented for him, and yet on any given night walks on stage, picks up his cello and, with his eyes shut and head tilted slightly towards the instrument, is determined to play an open D string exactly as the composer intended it.

Back in the classical music store waiting for my friend to figure out what he was going to buy, I remember reading something Ma said in an interview. I believe it was a quote that was printed on a sticker as a selling point for one of his CDs. Ma was asked what kind of advertising logo he would use for himself if he were a corporation. He responded that he would use a waiter’s uniform, and explained his answer thus:

"Because I think that being a good musician is very much like being a good waiter. You're not the chef—the composer gets that outfit—but you need to be knowledgeable about what you're serving in order to do the job well. You need to be present, but you also need to be discreet. If you do your job well, you can really add to the enjoyment of the experience."

At the time, I was strangely disappointed by reading this. I remember it distinctly, as if Ma had somehow let me down by choosing to assume a subordinate role, a “waiter.” Now, maybe fifteen years later, I understand this answer differently. The beauty of music and of musical performance is that it eludes hard-and-fast rules, rigid concepts, stale prescriptions. There are many ways to make music, not just one or even a plurality—music looks forward and looks back, is constantly changing and being preserved, develops sequentially and comes out of nowhere all at once. Many music listeners gravitate towards performers whose personality is so forceful it overwhelms the music being played like a Gould or Horowitz, or performers whose being defines a period or single composer like a Rubinstein or Serkin. But what I have come to realize is that Ma’s “waiter” approach is also, in its own way, a statement—to master an instrument completely and apply a musical intelligence to serving a wide range of material understood on its own terms. This is a statement, and one that is still in the process of being made.
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