Yo-Yo Ma Masterclass review by Vicki Fehling-Mayne

The Chicago Cello Society was very fortunate to host a masterclass in partnership with the Institute for Learning, Access and Training at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra given by Yo-Yo Ma, the CSO’s Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant, on June 2nd, 2014. Over 200 audience members packed Symphony Center’s Buntrock Hall, eagerly anticipating this rare event.

Professional musicians, students and parents made up the capacity crowd. Many held cameras and other devices to capture images of the smiling superstar cellist as he entered the room. Madeleine Walsh of the CSO’s Institute for Learning, Access and Training welcomed the crowd and explained the Institute’s mission. Chicago Cello Society President Karen Schulz-Harmon spoke next and announced the Society’s upcoming season’s exciting events. She also credited CCS Treasurer Larry Block with initiating the conversation with the Institute about jointly hosting the masterclass.

This masterclass was unlike any I have ever experienced. In a typical class (even the one I attended at Marlboro, given by Casals!) the teacher plays, demonstrating the desired techniques. Ma did not play at this class. Instead, his unique approach was to ask the performers about the pieces they were playing, about music and even about life itself. He also asked questions of the audience, an approach that worked well, considering that the listeners represented a wide range of ages and musical backgrounds.

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The first performer was Manou Magdalena Chakravorty, an 11-year-old student of Karen Schulz-Harmon. Accompanied by Mirei Hori, she played Popper’s “Andacht” from the suite “Im Walde.” Ma chatted with Manou, showing his easy manner with students. Her performance elicited compliments from Ma, who asked the audience, “Do you all feel a little calmer now?” He asked Manou, “What does the title of the piece mean?” “Devotion,” she answered. Noting that devotion can be “outward or inward,” he asked Manou in which direction she felt the piece was going. She answered, “Inward.” He asked her how she achieved her beautiful sound. She spoke of bow usage and how various pressure differences create variations in sound. When he suggested that she move the bow closer to the bridge on the higher notes, and asked for her reaction to trying this, she responded that the sound became “more there.”

In discussing the tempo of the piece, Ma, perhaps aiming his comments to the youngest audience members, asked Manou to divide the 6/8 in half, as if it had two beats per measure. He noted that “Math makes things easier,” and asked the listeners how they liked this new tempo. Some said it was more flowing, and others said it had more direction. As he did with all three students, he praised her and thanked her for playing.

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The second cellist to perform was 13-year-old Benjamin Rodriguez, accompanied by his teacher, Linc Smelser. (It was a nice surprise see Linc, a fine cellist, at the piano!) Ma asked what Benjamin would play, and he answered, “The first movement of the Haydn C Major Concerto.” Then, turning to the piano, he asked what Linc would play, and he said, “The same thing!” to the audience’s amusement. After Benjamin’s spirited account of the Haydn, Ma said, “That’s a hard piece! What made you want to study it?” Benjamin answered that it’s fun to play. Ma said, “I see you like a challenge.” Turning to Linc, he asked, “What do you do with a student who likes a challenge?” Linc said, “Bring it on!” Ma went on to reflect that a cellist could show the audience either that a piece is hard or easy. He requested that Benjamin play the opening as if he were a hero–to play as if he owned it. Benjamin then played it with a comically heroic style, causing the audience to laugh and clap. Ma asked him if he could play it as if it were easy. An audience member responded to that rendition, saying the first version seemed easy because of his confident body language, and the second “easy” version seemed hard, because of his concentrating on making it perfect.

Ma then wanted Benjamin to play as if he were having fun and smile while performing. (I must say, it was refreshingly different to hear someone requesting a male, for a change, to smile!) While Benjamin played, Ma twirled in front of him, making funny faces and causing the crowd to roar with laughter. Some audience members offered that the playing now sounded lighter and livelier. In a final exercise, Ma had Benjamin put down his cello and promenade with him in a mock haughty fashion, while Linc accompanied their stroll on the piano. The audience went crazy.

The third student to play was Jeremy Ahn, a 16-year-old student of Alex Revoal. He was assisted by pianist Melissa Zindel. Ma asked Jeremy what he would play. He replied, “Adagio from the Haydn C Major Concerto.”

He kidded Jeremy, saying, “Wait–we just heard that! You mean there are different parts in the same piece?” Jeremy replied that this movement was very lyrical and beautiful. Ma then tuned and said, “Is that it? I was feeling very lyrical and beautiful!” After some banter, and Jeremy’s moving interpretation of the Adagio, Ma asked him to imagine telling a story. He added that we should never let a story die–instead we should tell a cliffhanger. He had Jeremy play the opening again and “spin the most beautiful, lyrical story.” While Jeremy played, Ma stood by and pretended to tell him a story, also crossing over to the pianist to tell stories to her. Ma’s message was that we always have to “keep things alive, or what’s the use of playing?” To the audience, he asked for a show of hands if anything being played was not “living.” He himself stood with thumbs up as the two played the opening again, turning his thumbs slightly down if he felt the energy change, then up again. Benjamin said he “tried not focusing on the notes, but making the music move somewhere.” Ma concurred, saying that we have to solve all the engineering problems of playing, but that’s not why we play. We play the cello to say something.

The remaining 10 minutes were spent in answering questions from the audience. One young listener asked about Ma’s children (they love music, but aren’t professional musicians), and another else asked about stage fright (we all have fears–everyone has different fears, and we have to learn how to deal with it). A third listener asked how he learns a new piece (he tries to discern what it’s about, and how best to “tell it” like a joke). He stressed that music is not a part of life-music IS life. It was a privilege to watch Yo-Yo Ma work with the students and also with the audience. I’m sure none will soon forget this experience.

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