Famed Cellist Visits Evanston Institute, Gives Workshop

Nathan Adkisson

By Nathan AdkissonThe Daily Northwestern

The renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma slipped in and out of Evanston Monday. No penguin suits or glossy programs announced his coming.

“It was unreal,” said Tom Hord, 17, a clarinetist from the school that performed with the famed musician. “You hear about Yo-Yo Ma your entire life and you never think it’s going to happen to you.”

Yo-Yo Ma visited the Music Institute of Chicago, 1490 Chicago Ave., for four hours to teach, never mind the audience of more than 100 watching his workshop.

The Music Institute of Chicago students knew they were going to play with Ma a few weeks ago, but they met him only an hour before the performance.

“He didn’t introduce himself,” said Hord. “He just walked right up to us like we were old friends.”

The evening was part concert, part workshop. Ma would listen to the students perform, offer them suggestions and then they would play the piece again. There was no talk of mistakes, only possibilities for improvement.

Yo-Yo Ma started out by performing with the Silk Road Ensemble, a nonprofit organization founded by Ma in 1998. The Silk Road was an old trade route between the East and the West. Ma said he wants to use this as a metaphor for “cultural exchange.”

Building on a soft, repetitive base line, the musicians effused a hypnotic musical atmosphere. The players in the ensemble illustrated the dream-like waltz feel of the piece by standing and dancing in slow circles with their instruments.

The first student group to receive workshop training was a quintet that had a flute, an oboe, a clarinet, a french horn and a bassoon. They performed a piece by Antonin Reicha.

After they played, Ma asked the performers questions designed to improve their musicality.

“What is happening in this piece,” he asked. “Why is it happening? How does it affect you? What are you going to do about it?”

Ma said he wanted to make the music more personal because it would help the performers connect with the audience.

“Use your imagination,” Ma said. “The bassoon is an evil duke and the clarinet is the fairy godmother.”

Toward the middle of the workshop came an unusual experiment. Ma stopped the performers and told the audience to start talking. The cellist said he wanted the performers to come in over the top of the crowd with more volume.

It took a few tries. After Ma told them that they should keep the noise up, the performers brought the sound level over the top of the crowd and forced the audience to pay attention.

“By being more energized, you are more connected to the audience,” Ma told them.

After the quintet came a sextet that consisted of a flutist, percussionist, a pianist, a clarinetist, a cellist and a violinist. They played a more experimental piece that accompanied a poem about blackbirds. The final movement of their piece incorporated bits of The Beatles’ “Blackbird” from “The White Album” with an outburst of a few lyrics from a man in the audience.

Finally, Ma invited everyone who played that night, 22 in all, back on stage to perform the original piece the Silk Road Ensemble opened the evening with.

A group of Northwestern students who grew up on the North Shore were at the Music Institute on Tuesday.

“One member of our old orchestra said, ‘Go see it, it’s Yo-Yo Ma,'” Weinberg and Music freshman Samantha O’Connell said. “We just walked right in.”

The Institute’s students said practicing with Yo-Yo Ma was like a dream.

“You would think someone like that would be a little intimidating,” percussionist Molly Yeh, 17, said. “But he wasn’t.”

Molly Yeh’s father is John Yeh, a clarinetist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

“He has excited more kids about music and about performing than anyone,” he said. “It was such a love-fest. He has so much passion, and everyone saw that passion in this room tonight.”

Reach Nathan Adkisson at [email protected]