How to explain the magnitude of a Yo-Yo Ma performance? Playing with the superstar cellist is like riffing on stage with Bruce Springsteen. Like sparring with Muhammad Ali. Like foxtrotting with Fred Astaire.
But ask anyone, and they'll explain: He's also a really nice guy.
Ma makes his debut with the Florida Orchestra in a sold-out gala concert at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg on Jan. 31, performing Dvorak's Cello Concerto in a program led by Tito Muñoz with Dvorak's Carnival Overture and Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol. The affair benefits the orchestra's Music for Life fundraising campaign.
The anticipation fluttering through the orchestra is palpable.
Ma, 59, is arguably the most popular classical musician in the world, technically and stylistically pristine. He has performed for presidents from Kennedy (when Ma was a boy) to Obama, and was last seen here in 2009 when he played Bach's solo suites at Ruth Eckerd Hall.
Ma has spoken about his motivations, his quest to deeply understand people, and for that understanding to surface as authentic emotion in his music. For Ma, that means making time to talk to those who want to meet him.
Ask those who have, and they'll inevitably share stories. That includes everyone from orchestra president Michael Pastreich, who said Ma sent a baby gift upon the birth of his daughter, to my cousin in Washington, D.C., who said Ma wouldn't leave a panel talk until everyone who wanted a photo with him got one (and Ben got his photo).
"All that perceived regular guy niceness and humanity is actually true," said Keith Lockhart, conductor of the Boston Pops Orchestra, who has known Ma for 25 years. "It really is the way that he perceives the world. He's very private, very hard to get a hold of, but once you actually have a hold of him, he'll do anything. You try to march him through a campus of 400 students and 20 minutes later you have to remove him because he won't stop talking to the kids, and he's got a high-priced donor dinner to get to."
In their own words, some staff and musicians from the Florida Orchestra recount the times they crossed paths with Yo-Yo Ma.
James Connors, principal cello
I first had the opportunity to hear Ma many years ago when he was a student at Harvard. A high school friend and I had learned that the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich would be giving a master class at Sanders Theatre on the Harvard campus.
The huge theater was absolutely packed, but we had prime seats. Ma was one of three students from Harvard who had the privilege of playing for the master that day, and he had chosen Dvorak's Cello Concerto for the class, a pillar of the repertoire. Rostropovich outdid himself. He was obviously moved and impressed by what he was hearing.
The instruction moved out of the realm of technique to philosophy, history and the influences of art on society throughout the world. Everyone in the audience knew that we were witnessing something special that day, and I feel extremely fortunate to have seen two of the greatest cellists of all time together on the same stage.
Although Rostropovich is no longer with us, his spirit of generosity, humanity and exuberance for life lives on in Ma. I've had the great fortune to hear and meet Ma many more times since that long-ago master class.
Most recently several years ago at Ruth Eckerd Hall, after a solo Bach recital, I was able to attend the reception backstage. Upon learning I was principal cellist with the Florida Orchestra, he asked if I might like to play his cello. After the quickest "Yes!" I've ever uttered, I had the opportunity of a lifetime to play one of the finest cellos in the world. Few artists would let anyone touch their instruments, let alone play it. But he is an artist apart, just as Rostropovich was.
Henry Adams, associate director of marketing and communications
I was the marketing-public relations director for the Honolulu Symphony on the 1986-87 season when Yo-Yo Ma was a guest artist there. I had to pick him up at about 7:30 or 8 a.m. to take him to three or four interviews prior to the morning orchestra rehearsal.
When I pulled up at the Hyatt Regency Waikiki, he was sitting there waiting for me, of course, with his cello but also with a cardboard box on his lap.
He said that since it was so early, he was concerned that perhaps I had not had time to eat breakfast. He then said that since he was not sure what I might like, he showed me his "box buffet" of coffee, tea, hot chocolate, muffin, scone, croissant and more for me to choose from.
I already knew that this was a great musician with the transformative gift of pure music, but now I also knew that he was a transformative human being with great generosity of heart. Although a very simple gesture, it somehow touched me deeply to have this great artist show such genuine concern for me, the guy driving him around to interviews and rehearsals.
Alfred Gratta, cello
I was a senior at the Cleveland Institute of Music studying performance with Stephen Geber, then principal cellist of the Cleveland Orchestra. Yo-Yo Ma was in town rehearsing the Dvorak Concerto for concerts that weekend.
Geber announced suddenly that Ma would be giving a master class at CIM on Friday (in three days!) and that I was going to play three movements from the Bach Fourth Suite, which I was preparing for my senior recital. He chose two other students to play in addition to me.
So, that Friday, there were probably about 300 people in the audience. I played first and was extremely nervous since I had never performed this particular piece in public before and had to do it from memory in front of Yo-Yo Ma. He asked to see my music so he could make a few markings in it, which I still have to this day.
The things I remember most about my lesson with him are what he said about breathing with the phrases and allowing time to give the music a chance to sing in a more vocal style. The fourth prelude especially can sound like an etude (exercise) if it is played too stiff or metronomically. He also worked to help get more flexibility in my bow arm and to make string crossings more smooth and less bumpy. As this was so long ago, I'm not sure he will remember me, but I certainly have never forgotten that day.
Danielle Rossbach, community engagement manager
"Inescapable charisma" are two words I did not know to use as a 12-year-old, writing an article on Yo-Yo Ma for the (then) St. Petersburg Times’ youth journalism program, the X-Team. Although I didn't use those words, I felt them. I had been playing cello for a few years, so when I found out Ma would be performing with the Silk Road Ensemble, I pleaded with our editor to write a concert review.
As I've recently discovered, tickets for a concert with Yo-Yo Ma are hard to come by last-minute, and there were none left. The day before the concert, however, my editor surprised me with a call to ask if I'd like to have a phone interview with him and write about his Silk Road project instead.
What ensued was a 45-minute conversation about being homeschooled, science fiction novels and foreign languages, with a smattering of excitedly nervous questions regarding the development of the Silk Road Ensemble. At the end of the interview — more so him interviewing me than anything else — Ma invited me to the concert and to talk with him backstage.
I could not have been more warmly greeted in the green room at Ruth Eckerd Hall. For someone who was about to perform for a full house, Ma was so focused on our conversation and in giving me some strong encouragement, for which I will always be grateful. He urged me to study cello at a university and also take courses in other fields, developing a passion for music within the context of the world in which we live.
Now working for the Florida Orchestra in community engagement and education, I'm delighted to reflect on the years since that advice to see where his wisdom has taken me.
Contact Stephanie Hayes at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.