Getting Yo-Yo Ma to play with your orchestra is no easy feat, not even when he's a close friend.
So when the Florida Orchestra's leaders set about the formidable task of landing the world's most in-demand classical superstar, the agony of will-he-won't-he waiting commenced. Finally, it became real.
Yo-Yo Ma is making his debut with the Florida Orchestra on Jan. 31, playing a gala concert at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, the orchestra announced Monday.
"Yo-Yo is undisputedly the greatest living classical musician," said Michael Pastreich, the president of the Florida Orchestra. "There's only one of him. There are thousands of orchestras around the world who are vying for his time."
The world-renowned cellist joins the orchestra's 2014-15 season, along with piano rock star Ben Folds, who will play in the fall.
"I think bringing Yo-Yo Ma and Ben Folds to the Florida Orchestra in a single season, two of the absolute tops of two different genres, is an example of what the Florida Orchestra is able to do in this community," Pastreich said.
Pastreich has worked with Ma before, and said he considers him a friend. He invited him to his wedding but Ma couldn't make it, he said, and Ma sent a present when Pastreich's daughter was born. Gregg Gleasner, the orchestra's interim director of artistic planning, also has a working relationship with Ma.
The friendships helped grease the conversation, but commitment still wasn't a sure thing.
Ma, 58, is incredibly sought after. He has dozens of albums and 16 Grammy Awards. He was appointed a Culture Connect Ambassador by the U.S. Department of State in 2002 and has worked with thousands of students around the world. He has performed for U.S. presidents including Barack Obama.
And although Ma has appeared in Tampa Bay as recently as 2009, when he played the solo cello suites of J.S. Bach at Ruth Eckerd Hall, he has never played with the Florida Orchestra.
There was no single word of wisdom that sold Ma on visiting the Florida Orchestra, Pastreich said. But after a series of conversations, someone who knew someone got a peek at Ma's schedule and saw the Florida Orchestra penciled in. After that, the actual deal got moving and was completed in January.
It's a boon for an orchestra still climbing out of financial strife and finding ways to increase support. Ma's gig could translate into dollars for the nonprofit orchestra, kicking off a series of grand gala concerts with more big-name stars.
The Ma gala is still in progress, but it will likely be priced above typical masterworks concerts and may include options for things like cocktail hour and dinner in addition to the concert.
The 2014-15 season is already packed with popular classical musicians including violinist Midori and pianist Peter Serkin. But it's also full of pops concerts and rock hybrids including a Brahms-Radiohead mash-up.
In that vein, the orchestra booked Ben Folds, 47, a singer and songwriter with a cultlike following. Folds is scheduled to bring his Ben Folds Orchestral Experience tour Nov. 7 to the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa.
"He's an honest musician," said Erik Finley, the orchestra's artistic operations director. "He's just one of those people who sort of transcends categorization. He's the kind of artist we want the orchestra sharing the stage with."
Folds, front man for Ben Folds Five and a successful solo artist, is also a composer and font of musical knowledge who works as a judge on NBC's a capella contest The Sing-Off. He recently debuted an original piano concerto with the Nashville Symphony.
When he joins the Florida Orchestra, he'll play 15 of his pop songs, including Brick, Annie Waits and The Luckiest, as well as his concerto under the lead of conductor Jacomo Bairos, music director of the Amarillo Symphony.
What Folds and Ma have in common, Finley said, is a rare fulfillment that comes from hearing them in-person.
"It's so much better than the recording," he said. "Hearing them live is just a different sort of experience."
Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.