Cellist Yo-Yo Ma is one of classic music’s few marquee names among those who aren’t ardent fans of the genre. He’s become an unqualified star through frequent appearances on television and in movie scores, and a number of cross-genre recordings, including a pair of Appalachian projects (Appalachian Journey and Appalachia Waltz) with fiddler Mark O’Connor and bassist Edgar Meyer.
Ma comes to Danville on Sunday, but not to sit in the spotlight alone. He’ll be the cellist in a quartet made up of longtime colleagues Jonathan Gandelsman, Colin Jacobsen and Nicholas Cords. They will perform a concert of works from Central Europe and the Mediterranean, including Franz Schubert’s String Quartet No. 15 and works by contemporary composers such as Giovanni Sollima and Tigran Mansurian.
We took the opportunity of having Ma (photo, above, by Steven Danelian) on the phone last week to talk about a number of things regarding his work and music. Here are excerpts from that chat.
The photos, below, in descending order are Jonathan Gandelsman by Amber Darragh, Colin Jacobsen by Todd Rosenberg and Nicholas Cords by Ingrid Hertfelder.
A: I love those people and I learned so much from them. The music is so fabulous, I feel really lucky to have had a chance to work with them in depth and over a good period of time. I obviously still keep in touch with them.
Q: Did that bring you to this part of the country very much?
A: Yes, to
Q: What has been the enduring effect of the Appalachian projects in your music and your playing?
A: It opened so many new worlds to me. The idea of two things: One is trans-national music, the whole idea which Edgar and Mark explained to me is that you have the Scottish-Irish music going down to Canada, to Cape Breton, to Appalachia, to Texas fiddling style. It’s an unbroken line where the music is performed differently and in different times, but really, it’s that kind of flow of music for hundreds of years. The second thing is the oral-tradition part, learned and passed on from generation to generation with such devotion and fun and passion.
Q: Was that a jumping-off point? Because certainly you have done numerous other cultural explorations. When did you get interested in exploring distinctive cultural music?
A: I was always interested in exploring all music. I never thought in terms of categories, I just thought within classical music there are so many different styles in terms of both time and geography. How do you go back 300 years and advocate for someone who was writing in that particular voice? What kind of context is it?
For me, it was always someone trying to understand something. So I’d ask, “Why were they writing? What were they trying to tell us?” So, when I was younger, going from one composer to another, I may have played the notes, but I didn’t understand what it was about. Just from trying and hearing different peoples’ points of view and life experience, I’d say, “Oh, yes. I get it now.” I’d seek out the DNA of that piece.
I think that in today’s world no one grows up listening to one music. Part of being alive in this world is knowing who you are and how you fit in the rest of the world. I’m certainly interested in what the rest of the world thinks and feels and how they want to express themselves in sound.
Q: How has opening yourself up to a variety of styles and forms impacted your playing?
A: It makes me freer. I feel more human, like there are many more options. One of the things I love about people who are expressing or playing oral traditions is that when they perform they really own their music. You don’t make mistakes. Everything they do is right, and you’re in the best frame of mind possible to express the music. That is my goal in playing all music. Instead of saying, “Now, I’m going to play a Bach suite and I’m going to try to play for perfection,” I’m going to try to be in the right frame of mind for that piece. That means that if I have a memory slip, but I know the music and I know I can get back in, that’s not the most important thing. The most important thing is being in the state of mind to express what the music is saying.
It’s freeing in the sense that you forgive yourself. You don’t forgive yourself if you’re not in the right state of mind, but you forgive yourself for other things, because that’s not what performance is about.
Q: So it’s more about conveying the right emotion and feeling rather than hitting all of the notes perfectly every time.
A: I think so. You want to achieve as close to perfection as possible, but that is not the end goal, because there are enough short stories about perfection, but it can be deadening. You want to express something that’s alive.
No human being is perfect, and sometimes you appreciate a human being because they are quirky. You appreciate the quirks in humans, and I think the same thing is true in works of art.
In this quartet that we’re coming with, we’re playing music that sort of surrounds a certain geographical region. The classical part is from the Austro-Hungarian empire, Schubert, Vienna. But it’s a Vienna that Napoleon conquered for a while, and not too far away from where Georgia is today and Armenia is, and slowly by coming from Sicily, partly ruled by Arabs for 200 years. So you have all of those elements from around the Mediterranean Sea to Central Europe that we’re kind of exploring.
A wonderful composer, Mansurian is alive and well, and Ali-Zadeh is a wonderful composer from
Q: One thing I was curious about is, you obviously are one of the marquee stars of “classical music,” but when you look at this program, you’re coming as the cellist in the quartet, and I was curious about the decision to tour that way and put a quartet together.
A: I’ve been playing with Colin and Johnny and Nick for years as members of the Silk Road Ensemble. But they’re all interested in lots of different things . . . We’ve wanted to play quartets a long time. But everyone is busy doing other things. But we’re finally achieving a goal we’ve had for years, saying let’s play some quartets. Let’s do something. For this, Nick has been in charge of commissioning a fabulous instrument maker, Sam Zygmuntowicz from Brooklyn, and he’s actually made a quartet of instruments that we’re all going to play. They’re all cut from the same wood. So, it’s not just like, ‘Let’s get together.’ We’ve been thinking about getting together for quite a while. We love the Schubert, which is a cosmic piece in many ways. So, there’s the instrument part of it. Colin and Johnny and Nick all formed kind of an orchestra in Brooklyn. They’re all making up lots of things. They’re very creative people, and we have a lot of fun. We’re forming a band for this tour, but it’s out of a long and deep relationship.