People have often asked me, "Is Yo Yo Ma as nice in person as he appears to be on stage?" To which I respond, "no.....he's even nicer."
We met one hour before the orchestra rehearsal, a custom I always do with guest soloists so that there are no surprises when soloist and conductor work with the orchestra players later. Yo Yo had arrived early. (I have read that Sting and Tom Hanks are much the same way, always early for everything, even the most trivial appointments, and wonder if this is something that the truly great artists have in common?) He was waiting for me, cello in hand, and was ready to play Dvorak for me, asking me what I'd like to hear, to which I responded, "Yo Yo...having already heard you rehearse the Dvorak with Levine and the BSO last month, and then your performance on television with Maazel and the New York Phil a couple of days ago, and of course your two different recordings of Dvorak a million times.....well, if I'm not ready for you now, I have no business being here!" And since I knew he'd be hungry after a long drive from Manhattan, I came prepared with sushi from Ichiban. We ate, and talked -- everything from what it's like to make music with Maazel to his close friendship with the late Fred Rogers, of "Mr. Rogers" fame. The orchestra's stage manager, Ken Trestman, interrupted us.
KT: "May I touch your cello?"
YYM: "Do you play?"
YYM: "You have to try this....it's the cello Jackie duPre played...."
and Yo Yo (while Ken protested) proceeded to give a man he'd just met his magnificent Davidoff cello.
Now, how many artists would let you touch their Stradivarius, let alone play it?
Mary Ellen Guertin (wife of board member, Pierre Guertin) was there with 20 or 30 kids, so the rehearsal felt like a performance of sorts. (It doesn't matter if there are 28 or 2,800 in the audience -- orchestras always play differently when people are listening.) And Yo Yo did many things in rehearsal that I did not expect. But in every instance where he pushed or pulled or stretched or suspended, it was always so natural, so logical, always in a beautiful state of flux. That evening, he was different again; it was an entirely different performance. (I must remember to ask Mary Ellen if the Dvorak was a different experience for her in the evening.)
One moment I won't soon forget.....
...there is a magical duet between the cello and violin late in the finale, and in this passage during the rehearsal, I later realized I had not done as much of an accelerando (Dvorak's direction in the score) as I would have liked. Hours later, in the performance, Yo Yo was playing the duet with our concertmaster, Leonid Sigal, clearly enjoying the moment, and yet he still managed to indicate to me with every bone in his back and the force of his musical will that he wanted to fly at this point. And so I took off, taking the orchestra with me, and now I know what Han Solo feels like when he goes into hyperspace. Wow.
But what is it about the end of this Dvorak cello concerto, in which the finale begins with such vim and verve, and then a dozen minutes later takes on a completely different sound world, filled with such pain and sadness? Ah, yes. food for thought (and a future post).