When Yo-Yo Ma walked into Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall on Wednesday, December 9, he wasn’t expecting to hear anyone but himself play music. While the legendary cellist was joining the Eugene Symphony for a sold out concert two days later, his Portland show, though presented by the Oregon Symphony, was a solo gig.
So what, he asked his escort from the Oregon Symphony, was the obviously live music he was hearing as he entered the lobby?
As anyone who’s seen the OSO lately knows, its concerts are usually preceded by Prelude performances by local musicians, almost always young ones. “We love to give young performers a place to perform and an appreciative audience,” says the OSO Vice President for Communications Jim Fullan. “In addition, it provides our patrons with some pre-concert entertainment, which they always enjoy.” Held on the second floor landing where patrons can get really close to the musicians and the music, the brief performances make a tasty appetizer to an evening with the Oregon Symphony.
This evening’s Prelude performers, a string ensemble drawn from the ranks of Portland’s Metropolitan Youth Symphony’s Symphony Orchestra, were in the middle of playing Edvard Grieg’s ever-popular Holberg Suite, conductor-less, which they sometimes do, when maybe the most renowned figure in classical music walked up to hear their set.
After the MYSfits started the fifth movement, Ma moved behind the group to observe the cellists. After watching for a bit, he asked MYS cellist Tommy Cohen, “Can I borrow your cello?” He sat down, and suddenly, 15 young Portland musicians were playing in Yo-Yo Ma’s band, or he in theirs. At the time, several of the musicians did not even realize that Ma was performing with them – it was quite a shock to finish the piece and see him there in the cello section.
Yo-Yo Ma, of course, isn’t just any celebrity soloist. The 60-year-0ld virtuoso is known as much for his restless curiosity and an eagerness to break boundaries, from his world music explorations to his Bach PBS special working with artists in different fields, to his Americana oriented Appalachia Waltz project and many more. He’s made 90 albums, collecting 18 Grammy awards to go with his National Medal of Arts, his Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Polar Music Prize, among multitudinous other laurels. He’s also played Barack Obama’s Presidential inaugural (continuing a string of Presidential appearances that began with his eight year old performance before President Eisenhower), collaborated with a broad range of musicians from the Dixie Chicks to Philip Glass to Bobby McFerrin. And he’s involved in many non-musical causes as well.
Ma began to chat with the young musicians, offering general words of encouragement, telling them how impressed he was with the group. It was a nice gesture, something that all of them would tell their friends and families about for the rest of their lives, before the star headed off to his dressing room to prepare for his recital. The experience of playing with an idol, up close and personal, was something they would never forget.
“Above all,” recalled MYS music director William White, “Yo-Yo’s message was to have fun, perform, and communicate through music.”
Alas, a concert by Yo-Yo Ma is pretty much a guaranteed sellout anywhere in the world, ticket prices are dear, and none of the kids had tickets to his Schnitzer performance. But that didn’t stop their new bandmate from including them. He spoke to Oregon Symphony reps backstage, and about ten minutes before his recital began, 16 chairs appeared on the Schnitzer stage, flanking the star, and the MYS musicians got the word that they would be joining the great cellist. And that’s how the young musicians of MYS wound up with the best seats in the house.
Ma proceeded to play three of J.S. Bach’s legendary solo suites for cello, along with music by 20th century Turkish composer Ahmed Adnan Saygun (a friend of Bartok’s), a 2004 work Ma’s own world music Silk Road Ensemble commissioned from Chinese composer Zhao Jiping, and the popular “Appalachia Waltz” written by Ma’s fiddle buddy Mark O’Connor, who is to his instrument what Ma is to the cello.
“What’s amazing about Yo-Yo Ma is that he made the kids part of the performance,” White says, “personally engaging each of them on stage through his performance, directing little winks, nods, and smiles at each of our students, seemingly trying to point out what he was doing, musically, with each of the pieces.”
“Let me be absolutely clear,” Ma announced to the startled Schnitzer audience at the close of his set. “I am the MYSfit on this stage.”
After his performance, Ma met with his new young colleagues, praising their skill and ability to play precisely without a conductor, dispensing advice (including some repertoire to try out), and even tips on presenting concerts in fresh ways. The students’ social media accounts quickly propagated with messages of gratitude and astonishment for the great cellist’s generosity. Yo-Yo Ma may not have expected to play in a band when he entered the Schnitzer Concert Hall, but by the time he left, he had a new one.
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