Yo-Yo Ma and Performance
Lane, Christian, The American Organist
I RECENTLY attended a performance of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The occasion, for me, was nothing particularly noteworthy; rather, it was a normal Tuesday evening concert on the weekly subscription series. The orchestra performed a standard work of Dvorak and a rarely heard ballet suite of Bartók - a program it had already played three times that week.
Yet, on this night, there was an unusual buzz among the full-capacity audience. Young couples who were overdressed for the occasion filled many of the seats typically occupied by tweedclothed New Englanders two, three, even four times their age. Much to the chagrin of Symphony Hall ushers, iPhones and digital cameras capturing the event made consistent appearances throughout the evening, and lines at the bars were longer and more chaotic than usual. Intermission lingered as newcomers to Symphony Hall made good use of beverage services before searching out the restrooms.
There was good reason for all this hoopla, even in a town where the evening's star makes his home. The BSO administration was enjoying an early highlight of its season as Yo-Yo Ma, a formidable musician who transcends normal boundaries of classical music, helped fill the hall by taking the stage for Dvorak's monumental Cello Concerto.
I have met Yo-Yo Ma. He is an active alum of Harvard University who shows up for major events and regularly performs on campus with his Silk Road Ensemble, the noteworthy project he founded to help bridge cultural differences through the arts. I have watched him in rehearsal, and I occasionally see him wandering in Harvard Square. Yet I had never before heard him in a setting such as this, and I now fully understand why Yo-Yo Ma is Yo-Yo Ma.
A quick Amazon search reveals multiple recordings of the Dvorak Cello Concerto with Ma, and one can reasonably assume he has performed this piece many hundreds of times. And yet, as critic Keith Powers noted in his review of these Symphony Hall concerts, his performance "was given as if the music were still wet on the page, and the composer was seated in the audience, [with the artist] hoping for approval.1"
In performing this most standard of cello concertos, Ma exhibited a passion for the music that was anything but standard - it was physically and emotionally palpable. His exuberant energy was intense when appropriate, controlled when needed. His delivery of each phrase was thoughtfully shaped, yet always seemingly spontaneous. In this one work, his playing encompassed the entire spectrum of human emotion; exuberance gave way to sorrow, frenetic joy to profound contemplation. In many ways, despite a strong showing by the Spanish maestro Juanjo Mena, Ma singlehandedly led the large orchestra in this performance. He did so, however, not by leading from out front, as many leaders are tempted to do, but by leading from within. Throughout the performance, he acted as colleague instead of star. He actively listened to every part of the orchestra, made consistent eye contact with players all around him, and for a period even turned his upper torso to visually connect with the wind section seated directly behind him. He allowed his instrument to become a physical extension of his person and his persona. He smiled, he grimaced, he beamed with joy, he sweated. He was unafraid to be human on that stage, and his unapologetic desire to use music as a means to promote human emotional interaction was invigorating for this observer. By connecting with the orchestra, he enabled it to connect with the audience in intense and meaningful ways.
As soloist, if Ma weren't so fundamentally committed to each musical and physical gesture, it would be easy for some to write him off simply as a showman. Yet through his commitment to music making, and yes, through his commitment to showmanship in the best sense of the word, his performance, imbued with consummate artistry and integrity, connected vibrantly with an audience of 2,500 that evening. …