- September 30, 2008
NPR.org has the Yo-Yo Ma story from Weekend Edition 1/14 available for streaming from their website. You can listen now!
- September 30, 2008
No one since Leonard Bernstein has personified the joy – or the passion – of music as has Yo-Yo Ma. That passion is obvious in the romantic themes of Appassionato. These selections, recorded between 1978 and 2006 and including 4 never-before-released tracks, tell a musical autobiography. And in a new interview with critic Ed Siegel, Ma discusses his relationships with other musicians, the value he places on family and community, and his desire to understand other cultures. Here, as in his concerts and other recordings, one can hear all those passions blending into a luminous whole.
Q: Yo-Yo, when you listen to a recording of great musicians performing together, it can seem like you're overhearing a conversation between two or more engaging people. Do you think of these collaborations as conversations?
A: Absolutely! Music, like good conversation, deals with ideas. I think of music as passionate narrative. In order to be passionate, you have to make yourself vulnerable, and in order to be vulnerable you have to have trust. To me, trust is the most vital element of any important relationship, and trust is essential to musical relationships. As I began to choose the tracks for Appassionato, my first reaction was, "My goodness, all these relationships over all these years."
I've got to tell you a story. It was 1978, and the day after we were married my wife Jill and I went down to the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, South Carolina, which was a brand new festival then. So – new festival, historical, gorgeous place. While we were there, I got a call saying, "Can you come to Paris to record The Carnival of the Animals? Philippe Entremont is conducting." Sure, why not? I was in my twenties, I was just starting out as a professional musician, and I had tons of energy. I flew from Charleston to New York to Paris, landed at 7 o'clock in the morning. Twelve hours later, we recorded "The Swan" (track . And the next day I flew back to Charleston.
The next piece that I looked at for Appassionato was the Kabalevsky Concerto (track 6). It was Eugene Ormandy's last recording. Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra – these are musicians who were my heroes growing up. I was thrilled to have a chance to feel his conducting. And the legendary Ormandy sound – rich, lush and burnished – just to see the physical motions of that man, creating that sound with the orchestra, was amazing. Isaac Stern used to say that you could put Eugene Ormandy in front of any orchestra and within thirty minutes that orchestra's sound would start to take on qualities of the Philadelphia sound.
Of the musicians who came a generation or two ahead of you, the one you're most associated with is Isaac Stern. Listening to the Brahms "Double" Concerto (track 10) it sounds at one point as if he's a mentor calming down a younger, more hot-blooded man. It must have been something to have Isaac Stern in your camp.
Oh, it was really wonderful. Outside of my cello teacher, Leonard Rose, Isaac Stern was such a mentor and colleague and friend. I've known him since I was four years old.
There is something so extraordinary about the way Isaac Stern physically carved phrases. He was never not hot-blooded, but he didn't have overt sheen or vanity in his style of playing, so he made things count with less. His sound had a lot of character. I wanted to find the right way to match that and still be in the same range as the lush Chicago Symphony sound. It was an amazing experience to work with him and, you know, I miss him a lot. They don't make 'em like that anymore.
There are nine pianists on this recording. Do they each bring different shadings that you then match, or play off of, in some way? Like Jeffrey Kahane and the elegant, jazzy transcriptions that the two of you did together?
Every person brings in his or her personality and that creates a particular sound world. Jeff grew up in California. He played in a rock band and he played in a jazz band. He's an incredibly self-motivated, curious person, always exploring the world, and at the same time thinking about how music exists in a community. He brings all of those experiences to Gershwin (track 3). I first heard about Jeff because my wife, Jill, heard him play and talk at the Van Cliburn competition and she said, "He's really interesting. You guys should work together."
Kathy Stott, I met around 1978. Jill and I had rented a flat in London from Nigel Kennedy – now known as Kennedy – and we thought we had the flat to ourselves. One day, up comes Kathy. Nigel didn't tell Kathy he had rented the place to us, and he didn't tell us he had rented the place to Kathy. Fortunately, Kathy is an incredibly lovely, sensible, direct person. What could have become a serious conflict over space became a fabulous friendship. We started playing together a number of years later.
Kathy is actually more adventurous than I am as a musician – she's fearless. We've explored the music of Astor Piazzolla and Brazilian music, but when we decided to record a whole album together, the music had to be French. Having studied with Vlado Perlmuter at the Menuhin School, Kathy is deeply immersed in the French tradition. My father studied at the César Franck School, so I grew up with French music. We recorded the Franck Sonata in A Major, (track 2) and the last movement became part of Appassionato.
For me this album epitomizes the raison d'être of the Franck Sonata, which was written as a wedding gift from Franck to the great violinist Eugène Ysaÿe. The last movement has themes that are contrapuntal, one follows the other, like the resolution of a relationship in marriage.
You've often gone outside of the classical repertoire in collaborations. What led you to Mark O'Connor, Edgar Meyer and "First Impressions" (track 13) in 1995?
Well, that's an interesting story. The first time I heard Edgar perform, I was flabbergasted by his spectacular playing. So for years I thought, "This guy is amazing. I've got to follow what he's doing." And then I met Mark O'Connor at Stephane Grappelli's 80th birthday celebration at Carnegie Hall. I said to them, "We've got to get together." And they said to me, "We're happy to make a recording, but we have to meet once a month for a year just to work together and get used to one another. Otherwise it won't work." And about the second month in, I said, "Gee, it's sounding really good" and they sort of looked at me, not saying anything, and then I realized they didn't think it sounded that good. [laughs] To learn that style was a huge departure. I had to work really hard. It's like what Isaac Stern said, "In music it's not about the notes, it's what happens in between the notes."
This is the difference between being a consumer and being a participant. As a consumer, I thought, "Gee this music is great and I'd love to be in on it." But then as a participant, I realized it's not that easy. To really get inside it took a lot of time.
Playing with Mark and Edgar gave me new insight into how to play baroque music. So when I was re-recording the Bach Suites for the television series Inspired by Bach, I changed my bow grip and really thought differently. That led me to want to work with Ton Koopman and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra. What I love about Ton and the ABO is their passionate commitment to playing period instruments to the highest standards and with the greatest creativity. We recorded music by Boccherini – who was one of the first great cellists – Bach, and more recently, Vivaldi. For Appassionato I chose Vivaldi's "Winter" from The Four Seasons, (track 4) which I think is not just about the season but about a seasonal aspect of relationships.
I think you've said that it isn't much of a stretch from classical music to Astor Piazzolla.
Well, it is and it isn't. I don't tend to think in categories, so while some people would say that this album includes a lot of different kinds of music, I just think it's all great music. In terms of playing the music, though, I have to say that it is a stretch. I had a copy of the music for Piazzolla's "Le Grand Tango" which he wrote for Rostropovich. For a number of years I kept looking at it and thinking, "I don't get it." I couldn't find a way into the piece. And then Jeff Kahane and I went to Argentina, and I got a better understanding of Piazzolla's culture from the inside, and I started to understand his music.
I had the great joy and privilege of working with the guitarist Horacio Malvocino in 1997. Horacio was perhaps Piazzolla's oldest friend, and he told me that I had to play "Soledad" (track 11). He said it was the saddest piece that Piazzolla ever wrote, and if you know any of his music, you know that that's quite a statement. To me, "Soledad" (Solitude) contains an exquisite sense of longing, and what's more romantic than that? I wanted to include "Soledad" on Appassionato, but I needed a pianist. Osvaldo Golijov introduced me to Octavio Brunetti, who is a wonderful tango pianist. Within minutes it felt as if we'd been playing together for years.
And we have the choros "Doce de coco" (track 5) that I love so much, from Brazil. The choros is like the Brazilian equivalent of what fado is to Portugal. It's the longing, looking for a loved one. The great clarinetist Paquito D'Rivera likes to say that even though he is Cuban, his heart is half-Brazilian because he loves the music so much. I know exactly what he means. Romero Lubambo, the guitarist on this track, is a beautiful musician and he's the most gentle soul.
You've worked with almost all of today's best composers. Two of them on Appassionato – John Williams and Ennio Morricone – are perhaps best known for their film music.
John Williams has been a great friend. I love talking to him. He's very wide-ranging, always curious and looking for new things to learn. In addition to being an extraordinary composer, John is also a fabulous pianist, but he doesn't play that much anymore. I've been asking him to play with me for years, and he never said no, but somehow it just never worked out. I was so happy that he was willing to do this piano and cello version of a piece we had recorded for Memoirs of a Geisha. "Going to School" (track 1) is innocent love, first love – a wonderful sunny and youthful piece.
We have two Morricone tracks: "Nostalgia" (track 7) and "Gabriel's Oboe." I think "Gabriel's Oboe" (track 15) is one of the most overtly romantic pieces of music. It's so opulent. It has layers and layers and layers of emotion. Morricone has an unbelievable gift of melody.
That brings us to the Silk Road Project. Looking at your schedule, one might think that the last thing you need is another major project, but this one is particularly dear to you.
I think nobody grows up today listening to only one kind of music. There are great classical traditions everywhere. So between Persian classical music, Indian classical music, Azeri classical music, and so forth, there's so much to explore. In this day and age, we should know the world. Right? I think the best way to know the world is to become participants, rather than consumers. It is crucial to find generous people who want to share, who think: "This is what I know. You can get in on it."
So we have this piece that is actually sung on both sides of the border of Kazakhstan and China, "Swallow Song," (track 9) which is a love song. For Appassionato, Kojiro Umezaki and I created a version for Japanese bamboo flute (shakuhachi) and cello.
With the younger players, like Joel Fan who joins you for Mamiya's "Finnish Folk Song No. 4" (track 12), have you come full circle from being someone who was taken under the wing of Isaac Stern to now being the mentor yourself?
Well, I don't like to think of myself as a mentor. What I found out, in terms of being a parent, is that I learn so much from my two children. They see a different world than I see. As I get older and my own mentors age and die, working with younger people is incredibly stimulating because I get to see the world through their eyes. The younger people that I work with probably teach me more than I can give to them.
And what of your most famous collaborator, Emanuel Ax? By now, you must be able to have conversations without words.
We've known each other for thirty-five years now. It's wonderful. We're still great friends and continually experimenting with things. This album would not be complete if Manny wasn't part of it. One of the pieces we had never recorded was Song Without Words (track 14) by Mendelssohn.
You're right, we do have a shorthand. We know each other's timing really well – we kind of feel it. He has such a great sense of humor and we also have common core values. Manny and I go through different phases of life and we learn things and get back together, share what we've learned, and then go back off again. It's a very, very special relationship.