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A gala affair

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A short while ago, world-renowned cello master Yo-Yo Ma gave a gala performance at Powell Symphony Hall in St. Louis as part of a fundraiser for the many programs provided by the city’s world-renowned orchestra. It’s always the case – as I suspect it might be with others – that after I go to a concert it’s mandated by some unseen force that I listen to that band or performer on repeat for at least a week. I’ve never quite been able to explain why.

Yo-Yo Ma might not fall under the typical genre of music that someone my age would find really, truly exciting, but having worshipped the musician since I was maybe five years old, just beginning piano lessons, I felt that the fourteen some-odd years between that day and October 24, 2009, merited the tickets purchased months in advance and the overt anticipation. It also merited the week’s worth of listening to cello sonatas, which still hasn’t really ended two weeks out.

Ma’s performance with the SLSO left me feeling awestruck at having been in the presence of an artist who, at the age of only seven, gave a command performance for President John F. Kennedy (picture).

Yo-Yo Ma, age seven

A still from a video of a seven-year-old Yo-Yo Ma performing for President John F. Kennedy

But Ma’s celebrity status in no way inhibited the massive concert hall, and I was also left with the unalterable sense that I had just been given a private performance by one of the greatest musical geniuses of our time, despite the fact that I was sitting a good hundred rows back in the second tier of the balcony.

Every face in the orchestra was familiar from my memories with the St. Louis Children’s Choirs, having rehearsed extensively with Maestro David Robertson, first violinist David Halen and the rest of the ensemble. The orchestra is considered one of the finest in the nation, having performed multiple times at Carnegie Hall and won several Grammy awards, and has remained an essential asset to St. Louis’ arts culture despite its past financial troubles.

From the orchestra’s tuning to the lighthearted humor literally thrown to the audience at the conclusion of the performance by Robertson and Ma himself, the evening was as flawless as expected from an artist as precise and unflagging as Ma. The orchestra first performed Schubert’s “Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D. 759, ‘Unfinished,’” written in 1822, with Robertson prefacing the first performance by jokingly admonishing the audience not to worry – Ma would eventually make his appearance.


The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra performing

The passion that the musicians employ in every bow stroke, every pluck of their strings, and every precise eye scan across a line of music before it is played for the hundredth time after countless hours of rehearsal has never ceased to amaze me. They had virtually the entire audience on the edges of their seats, no matter if the movement was upbeat or meanderingly slow.

After a brief shifting of chairs, a stand was brought out with a lone chair for Ma, illuminated by a spotlight. Having performed at the hall before, I thought it partly funny and partly unsettling that I knew exactly where he was and what the view of the hall was like from the wings where he stood. The anticipation built slowly as the orchestra tuned again for Dvořák’s “Cello Concerto in B minor, op. 104,” written years later from 1894 to 1895. Finally, as the lights grew dim and the air filled with almost tangible tension, he walked onto the stage.

I now understand what sets Ma apart from his artistic colleagues, or at the very least what differentiates his style. He hugs his instrument – literally hugs it – as he bows furiously but incredibly precisely across the thick strings. He sometimes presses his ear to the wood, perhaps hoping to hear something that he’s never heard before, his eyes closed all the while. His fingers move across the baseboard with breakneck speed, his hands becoming a blur during his solos that he performs without a score.


Yo-Yo Ma tuning before a performance at Harvard University on May 9, 2004

He looks up at the audience occasionally, winking and smiling and performing intimately as though for each of the hundreds of people alone. And when he’s not shocking the audience with his intense and previously unseen technique, he’s looking around at the orchestra, bobbing his head and tapping his foot to the beat, smiling and nodding approvingly of their interpretation of the piece.

You also know you’re listening to Yo-Yo Ma when the audience roars their approval and jumps to their feet for a standing ovation that lasts for ten minutes, with Ma and Robertson returning six or seven times to the stage to take bows, have the orchestra take bows and have time to recognize individual sections of the group. When bouquets of roses were brought out by the stagehands for the two, Ma began to pull flower after flower from the wrapping to hand out to as many violinists, cellists, bassists and brass players as possible, throwing some to a continually cheering audience with Robertson following suit.

And, finally, as one might expect after nearly fifteen minutes of applause, Ma gave a solo encore performance to top off what had been an extraordinary night. Borrowing the cello of principal cellist Daniel Lee, Ma sat again and lured from someone else’s instrument the same rich sound, wrapping himself around the cello in the same way,

After waiting unsuccessfully by the stage door with a crowd harboring the hope for an autograph or a picture, I saw Ma pull away in a gold Hyundai instead of the limo parked immediately outside the stage door. Tricky, but understandable. He’s a true master of not only the cello but also the art of escapes.


Written by Sangeeta Shastry

November 7, 2009 at 12:19 am

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