ma in the house

(photo by VPR's Brendan Kinney)

We’ve been planning it for months and months. As soon as it was announced that Yo-Yo Ma would be playing with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra this season, preparations got underway to hold a reception for him at the station. It happened last night.

For the first half hour or so guests of both VPR and the VSO gathered in the station’s performance studio, enjoying catering from Cloud Nine and catching up with each other. Then after a little while a short burst of spontaneous applause heralded the guest of honor’s arrival, and, beaming (as usual), Yo-Yo Ma stood at the doorway surveying the packed room.

It didn’t take me long to become impressed with his natural graciousness. He took a few moments to speak personally and genuinely with everyone who approached him. (And everyone did.) Somehow he made his way around the entire congested room within around a half hour’s time before being ushered out to make a late dinner date elsewhere.

Nearly as soon as he arrived, it seemed, he needed to leave. And I hadn’t had the opportunity to introduce myself yet as I noticed him began making his way to the door. So I cleared a path through the room and escorted him out and up the long hallway to the exit. We talked the whole time we walked – actually he did, once he found out what I did at the station. His topic? Expressing avid support for public broadcasting in the face of continuing funding threats. I just listened.

We could have talked about music, we could have talked about his concert tonight with the VSO. THIS IS YO-YO MA (I kept thinking) – he didn’t have to talk about anything at all if he didn’t want to. But there he was, taking the little time he had to share with me a passionate expression of dismay at the ongoing federal budget struggles with funding for public broadcasting, and the arts.

If you’ve ever listened to his playing and wondered about the wellspring that could produce such beautiful and heartfelt music, I can tell you firsthand it’s only possible because it comes from deep within him, it originates from a spirit that is equally genuine and empathetic and human. You simply can’t make music like that if it doesn’t come from a place that’s real.  I’ll listen to him playing the Tchaikovsky Rococo Variations and Saint-Saëns’ first Cello Concerto this evening with that in mind, and be glad I could have that small insight in meeting him last night.

Unfortunately, if you don’t have tickets yet you probably won’t be able to experience the concert this evening. It’s been sold out since it was announced last September, and apparently there is an unprecedented waiting list of more than a hundred people right now. Don’t let that stop you from exploring Yo-Yo Ma’s music, though – in particular I recommend his Sony recordings of the solo Bach cello suites; his ensemble work with fellow musicians Emanual Ax, Jaime Laredo (tonight’s conductor) and Isaac Stern; his recording of the Dvořák concerto; and his sizzling 1989 recording with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic of the Shostakovich Cello Concerto #1.

And now, for some very serious ‘long hair’ (long feather?) music, Sesame Street’s own Honker and Dinger Quartet:

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