Thank you, Chancellor
An empty chair on stage while the seats in the audience begin to be filled. This is one of those once-in-a-lifetime performances. I’m waiting in the front row for Yo Yo Ma to walk onstage, in Rolla, Missouri no less. Why HERE? It doesn’t matter, it works for me.
The chancellor begins to announce his accolades and I glimpse the gleam of a cello through the sound panels onstage. His bespectacled face peeks out and I nudge my neighbor excitedly.
The incomparable, Yo Yo Ma!
Thunderous applause. Humble acknowledgement. He picks up the microphone laying on a table beside his seat. He walks us through the concert program, giving a shout-out to St. Patty’s day with some selections (Rolla people are strange about it, I can’t explain it). He will be playing three of Bach’s cello suites along with three other pieces.
He takes his seat. The first note is so intentional. He is captivating. You’re going along with him on a journey through Appalachia, it’s like heartache with the hope of a glorious sunrise over the mountains. Then he begins the beloved 1st Suite. The prelude is joy and weight. His cello is simply an extension of his mind. It seems as if he is not thinking about what is happening, playing is as natural as breathing. His eyes move about the auditorium , occasionally locking briefly with yours. He really is looking meaningfully to you. He’s inviting you into the melody, into the expression that comes next. His face gives you hints of what is to come, cluing you in on the secret of the piece. Too soon, the gigue has flourished to a close.
He had met a man working in a liquor store in Chicago who had essentially forced his company upon him. The man asked what Mr. Ma did for a living and he responded that he was a musician. The man exclaimed, “As am I!” at which point Mr. Ma thinks greaaaat. The man asked what he played, he said cello, the man was thrilled and said, “I play the viola!” To which Mr. Ma thinks greeeaaaaaaaat. Musicians in the crowd join in on laugh and I feel moderately sorry for violists around the world as I smile. Surprisingly, it turns out that this man has quite the pedigree. He is from Turkey and studied composition with a man named Adnan Saygun. Saygun brought in composers such as Paul Hindemith and Bela Bartok to teach at university there. Next in the program is the Turkish Partita By Saygun and the Fifth Suite.
It’s a mystery where the sound ended and the silence began. I could see the bow off of the strings but the faintness of the note lingered in the room, refusing to dissipate. The releases were haunting in that way, he played them to unsettle your soul, to not leave you. Centuries of culture resonated as he played these very Eastern European melodies thick with pain and lessons learned. Suite №5 began, grappling with human existence. This one is darker, almost frantic. Once again, all too soon, the Gigue was finished.
The last portion of the evening would be a Sonata for Solo Cello by George Crumb and the Third Cello Suite. The Crumb piece was written for a girlfriend of his who played the cello. Because what woos someone better than writing music for them? As Mr. Ma speaks about the piece, he chuckles to himself and says jovially, “This piece is hard!” He laughs some more and we join him. It sounds like something that a freshman music major would say while working on scales or standard repertoire. But definitely not something that Yo Yo Ma would say, about anything really. It’s a poignant moment, drawing the audience in more as we share in his effort in performing this work.
The Crumb piece is difficult. Like ridiculous. But he is confident and the notes are soaring. He plays to the very brink of fingerboard with incredible precision. He begins the final Suite. The sarabande is passionate in harmonically rich. If we were dancing, it would be dancing with Mr. Darcy before Elizabeth knew that he loved her. Once again, the Gigue is over too soon.
The applause fills the room as everyone rises to their feet. He bows humbly, exits. He returns, thanks us, asks if we would permit an encore. He plays Song of the Birds. The birds flutter and soar. Once again, we are left with the ringing of the final harmonic, hovering somewhere between sound and silence. Gratitude to the applause. He exits.