Launching the Season with Yo-Yo Ma

On October 20th, after waiting patiently and excitedly for a month and a half, the musicians of the Civic Orchestra met Yo-Yo Ma – the man, and the brain behind the Citizen Musician Initiative – for the first time in the 2014-2015 season. Having been a Yo-Yo fan since six years old and knowing that I was about to be steps away from him, playing for him, and speaking to him – words cannot describe how ecstatic I was.

Yo-Yo’s three-day residency, the first of five during the 14/15 season, kicked off with an orientation on the many “artistic challenges” he would lead over the next few months, followed by a master class and discussion about the music of J.S. Bach. “In Baroque music, a great sense of pulse is very important,”  he said to a Civic cellist who played a movement of a Bach suite on the stage of Orchestra Hall. “Playing Bach is like being an architect – you have to have a strong foundation and know the structure” [in terms of the harmonic progression in a larger picture of the movement], “and then you add the ornamentations (such as trills and 16th notes) in between the pillars.”

Diana on stage

When commenting on Bach’s G minor Fugue from the first solo Violin Sonata, which was played on the marimba, Yo-Yo first congratulated Civic percussionist David Eisenriech, on a marvelous job, and then shared that in all the Bach’s fugues, which are generally long and arduous, musicians have to pretend to be marathon runners. The same way that a runner plans out how much energy they will spend on certain parts of the run, a musician must know exactly the pacing they want when playing a fugue. Once the pacing is clear, then the music, especially the bass line, will naturally flow better, and the listeners will easily follow the musical phrases.

One of the reasons Baroque music – especially Bach’s music – is such a challenge for musicians is that it can be difficult to figure out the fine line between “stylistically correct” and “personal interpretation.” Having done the recording of Bach’s six cello suites, Yo-Yo is no doubt the perfect person to answer this question when it was brought up.

“Has anyone ever been in a serious relationship?”A couple of people slowly raised their hands.

“What is it like to be in a serious relationship?” Yo-Yo then asked.

“It’s like you are so involved in the other person’s life and everything else become not so important.” Somebody answered.

Yo-Yo then said that playing a piece of music is somewhat like being in a serious relationship with the composer. Yes, you do need to take into account everything that is written by the composer, including the social and cultural context; however, the motivation of the interpretation is not written out. Therefore, it is the musician’s job to make his or her own decisions and to activate the piece of music in the listener’s mind. In order to make our own interpretation convincing, Yo-Yo told us “you have to tell yourself three things: 1, it is possible to do it; 2, I can do it; and 3, it will be effective. This applies to music of any time period.”

The first day’s activities concluded with a conductor-less orchestra reading of a Stokowski arrangement of Bach’s Passacaglia, BWV 582, during which Yo-Yo gave us tips about ensemble playing, including how effective body movements can help communication between musicians in any type of setting, including playing in an orchestra.

The following evening, the musicians met again with Yo-Yo to explore the Bach Brandenburg Concerti and the marathon of J.S. Bach concerts the Civic Orchestra will present in community locations across the city in December. “People create habits.” Yo-Yo stated. “Don’t just accept that things happen the way they do because they are supposed to.” He then used the examples of Monday Night Football, and the tradition of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker production of many major ballet companies around the world. “Things don’t happen out of nowhere. It happens because there are people behind the scene that are pushing the idea for it to happen. If you start a habit, you could potentially be creating new cultural traditions and job opportunities.”

In order to make our own interpretation convincing, Yo-Yo told us “you have to tell yourself three things: 1, it is possible to do it; 2, I can do it; and 3, it will be effective. This applies to music of any time period.”

The orchestra then separated into respective Brandenburg Concerti groups, not only to read through the music for the first time and to bond with their colleagues, but also to brainstorm and discuss some of the reasons that we, the Civic orchestra, would like to give back to the city of Chicago during the holiday season. And once that’s established, how we could make these Brandenburg Concerti concerts relevant, especially in the context of “starting a habit”?

The fellows met with Yo-Yo again the next morning to reflect on the previous days’ activities and share some thoughts from the small group discussions. He reminded us all that no matter what the ultimate decision is, remember music is a gift.

After this first residency, I was impressed by everything that had happened during the three days, especially Yo-Yo’s constant emphasis on working towards something larger than oneself, which, as a musician, really resonated in my mind. I also could not wait to begin the process of curating the December Bach Marathon Concerts with my peers.

By Steven Chang

Cover photo by Todd Rosenberg