Yo-Yo-Ma & Handspring

Yo-Yo-Ma & Handspring
Yo-Yo-Ma and Maestro Tchivzhel in a previous ppearance with the GSO

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Bloggo Musico Rapture-oso : A Belated Essay on Yo-Yo-Ma and the Greenville Symphony

Dottore Gianni and I have been SO busy lately (almost all of October in Europe, all of November writing about and otherwise recording the trip) that we've not had time to comment on a concert that  took place on the evening of 4 October, only three days before I left for Europe - I was in a rush with last minute arrangements etc, so did not have time to write about Yo-Yo-Ma's appearance with the GSO!

Short version: "What, are you crazy? How could this not be a rave???"

That's correct. I'd never seen in person the brilliant cellist/crossover artist par excellence/ambassador of good will to the world in general that is of course Yo-Yo-Ma. I loved it! 


Ma (if I may - much more courteous than addressing him as Yo-Yo, right?) is such a virtuoso that in person he seems FUSED with the instrument. One knows that he is human (or does he transcend? hmmm...) and that his cello is a mere block of wood and strings, but I'm sorry, they become one what his first stroke of the bow. And even if the human does not transcend, together they surely do, rising above all but the most perfect music - the music of the spheres, maybe?

Speaking of spheres, while what I'm about to write may sound a bit absurd to those who've seen him only on the screen, those of you who have seen him in person MUST agree with me. Dottore Gianni does, for certain. He is facing the audience on a dais, raised perhaps 8 to 10 inches above the floor, to the left of Maestro Tchivzhel. Once that first stroke of the bow is released, he seemed suffused in a sphere of golden glow. While he was perfectly in sync with Tchivzhel and the orchestra, at the same time he appeared to be in his own world, a shining sphere so that the raised dais served to lift him, figuratively, a bit beyond the rest of us - the audience and the musicians as well. 


Preposterous? Dottore Gianni doesn't think so. And the effect (though Ma is not going for"effect") is increased by his tendency, while caressing his cello lovingly as he plays, to raise his face, eyes closed, in a seeming rapture reaching in a way towards an artistic heaven.


While I am often given to loquacity (and the good doctor even more so) I cannot be accused, generally, of hyperbole. The seeming levitation approaches exaggeration I'll admit, but I'd argue that the fusion of artist and instrument does not. 

Let me give you an example, from a brilliant performance that I had the privilege to see: In 2009 at the renowned 
The set of Il Ritorno - in the rear above are projections
Edinburgh Festival The Handspring Puppet Company from South Africa, in conjunction with the design and direction of of fellow South African WilliamKentridge, created a brilliant production of Monteverdi's opera Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria (Ulysses/Odysseus Returns to his Country). Adrian Kohler, founder of Handspring, created figures perhaps 2/3 the size of their handlers. The concept is very similar to traditional Japanese Bunraku, a form of puppet theatre that makes use of three handlers for each puppet. As in Bunraku, Handspring gives the main handler the responsibility of the head and right arm of each puppet. Instead of three handlers however, there is only one other, who handles the other arm. But here's the catch. In the opera, that other handler is also the singer. He/she and the main handler are clearly in sight, the puppets raised aloft above them.


In the foreground is another puppet, a dying man in the operating theatre of a hospital. Ulysses? Possibly. Or a symbol of mankind reaching for something greater than himself at the end of his days? Possibly. But my point here is not so much the message as the medium (opera) and the mediators (puppets, master handlers and vocalist/handler).


In the production one (at least THIS one) in the audience at first accepted the illusion (the willing suspension of disbelief, as Coleridge put it) but beyond that lost sight of the threesome (puppet & two handlers). Because the singer was one of the three, all became fused into a single unit. Pardon the blasphemy but there appeared a sort of theatrical/
musical Trinity. The puppets as I say were lifted by their handlers, and seemed to me (Dottore Gianni cannot help but agree) to rise above the abilities of any one of the three figuratively fused entities involved. They soared, as did the music, as did the production, as did the audience.

The production was at least as good as another Handspring/Kentridge collaboration, the much more famous but no less majestic production of War Horse. which I also saw (in London and less majestically on tour in Greenville SC). 

See the similarity between the brilliant Ma and the brilliant production I witnessed at Edinburgh? There is one important distinction to be made however. As brilliant as Il Ritorno was, it was also the result of a theatrical trick. Not a cheap one mind you, a brilliant collaboration that rose even beyond "willing suspension of disbelief" which when it works produces a her perfect work of art. But in comparison, at the Peace Center in Greenville SC (no offense but, my God!) the magic was produced solely by Yo-Yo Ma and his cello. The only "tricks" were years of practice and preparation, and a stroke of genius on the part of the artist.

Whew! Dottore Gianni is dizzy with a brief spell of Stendhalismo - that condition where a person sees or hears a work of art so beautiful that his/her legs nearly give out from under - the viewer/auditor has to catch oneself before s/he falls. And the good doctor is only remembering the experience! Having lived it, more than twice certainly (but not nearly often enough), in these two artistic presentations he/I can only bow in the presence of something grand, and give thanks.

As to the specifics of the concert I have one quick quibble. The piece Ma played was the Elgar Cello Concerto. Interestingly, earlier in the season (the only concert I did manage to review up until now of the 2013-14 offerings) Elgar's Violin Concerto was performed by a lesser guest artist than Ma, Elena Urioste (no insult to her, for Ma is in a class by himself), so I was able to hear two pieces with which I was not familiar before. Also interestingly, the concerto for violin, while less brilliantly played, is to my mind the finer piece of music. Perhaps I'm being selfish, but I wanted music with more opportunity for fireworks, excitement. Foolish of me perhaps, but even in his rarified golden sphere a few feet off the ground (if you will) Ma was not playing alone, but was, as already noted, in perfect sync with the orchestra, which by the way, really rose to the occasion.

But in response to the ovations given (finally in Greenville, a standing ovation worth rising for) he played an eplayed an encore, Bach's Air on a G-String. In this he soared. Ask audience members around me, ask members of the orchestra seated and watching/listening in rapture. Those few moments compensated (though no compensation was really needed) for the slightly less than thrilling concerto. 

Then he bowed again, and briefly greeted the concertmaster, one or two other principle players. He then walked over to the principal cellist in the orchestra and embraced her, which every one of us loved as much as she did.  Well, perhaps not quite as much. And then he left the stage. Generous, caring, brilliant. Expectations more than met on every level, I felt my legs wobble slightly, and gave in to that all too rare feeling of Stendhalismo. Bravo Yo-Yo-Ma!

Brief Coda: I don't mean to reduce the other offering, in the first portion of the evening, by confining it to a coda, but let's face it, the evening belonged to Yo-Yo-Ma. The sole musical offering before his appearance was a beautifully rendered performance of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. I mention above that the GSO rose as close as it could to the brilliant cellist's level. In the Tchaikovsky it was as if they were preparing for him, and trying to impress him as well that they, the orchestra, were worth his coming for one night to Greenville. Whether or not their performance had the intended effect on Mr Ma, it certainly did for me - so bravo GSO as well!