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Yo-Yo Ma Delivers Masterful Performance — and Inspiring Master Class — During Latest Visit

[Click here for additional photos from Yo-Yo Ma’s 2014 performances in Santa Barbara.]

Yo-Yo Ma has become a regular visitor to Santa Barbara, thanks to UCSB Arts & Lectures and various sponsors — in this case, Lady Leslie Ridley-Tree, Sage and William H. Kearns Foundation).

Last Thursday, Ma performed a full concert on cello with his piano partner, Kathryn Stott, at The Granada Theatre.

The next day we were treated to a free Master Class at the Lobero Theatre with Ma and a number of young local students.

Here are my photos and the full programs of each session.

The students performed superbly to an average music lover like me. But Yo-Yo Ma found ways to encourage them to soar to even greater heights, and we were able to witness the often very subtle changes as he coached them.

In the case of the first group, he noted that they did well at standing and bowing together after their performance! A prelude to inviting them to pay attention to each other and to the audience and not just to perfecting their own individual performances.

“What are you trying to tell them (gesturing to the audience)?”

“A good citizen is empathetic to everyone.” “Break out of your silos.”

At one point he asked the students whether a “diminuendo” was meant as an instruction to the musician to play that way ... or whether it was meant to indicate how it should sound to the audience. The students correctly guessed that it was the latter.

Ma encouraged them to notice the parts they had trouble with and to focus on those. He compared it to stem cells: If you get this part right, the rest will follow OK.

He invoked classical and jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, who claims that ground rhythms are like the blue-collar workers of music. They drive everything else. Different pieces use different instruments to do this work. In some of the pieces in this class it was the piano, in others the instruments took turns.

In one piece with a violin, horn and piano, he said that the violin and horn are like the tide and waves, while the piano is like the gravity of the moon.

“Nature has the best imagination,” he said.

He likened one musical phrase to throwing something in the air.

“Everyone has had that experience,” he said. “And if not, you need to get a life!”

The music rises and then falls. There is an inevitability to this, but often with an unexpected surprise along the way.

Some of his other coaching was a bit more musically technical. Ma picked out phrases where the second note has to be emphasized.

“Like the second sibling, it has to work harder to be noticed,” he said.

He invited the musicians to observe certain unusual repeating intervals like sevenths or even ninths.

Ma suggested that it is good to know the history of the composer and it seemed the students were aware of this. One piece had been composed by Johannes Brahms in his early 30s when his mother had just died. The student noted that the piece was said to recapitulate the stages of grief. The section they were playing was a less mournful section.

Yo-Yo Ma talked of how Brahms used “2s against 3s.” “Dupals fighting Triplets.”

It was a treat to be in on the class and to get an idea of how great musicians learn and experience the world! Be sure to watch UCSB Arts & Lectures for future programs like this!

Click here for additional photos from Yo-Yo Ma’s 2014 performances in Santa Barbara.

Robert Bernstein is a local photographer and frequent Noozhawk contributor. The opinions expressed are his own.

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