The first night, the distance between us was hundreds of feet. I could barely make out his face, even with the aid of theatre glasses. The next day, I was as close as I would probably ever get – a mere 15 feet. To me, he was no stranger. I own half a dozen of his recordings. I’ve followed him in the news for years. I’ve looked up to him since my youngest years. I have even seen him in concert once before, at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. But on Saturday, February 22nd, I was sitting in a church with him, listening to him talk.
Yo-Yo Ma is a man of international fame and fortune. He is without a doubt the premier cellist of our time. He is possessed of a charm and good-natured banter so often lacking in classical musicians. In his trademark black coat, red scarf, and overly-large glasses, he sat on the platform at St. James church in Boston’s Chinatown. He bantered with his fellow panel members, including Tan Dun, composer of “The Map” and the soundtrack to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”.
It was truly a joy to be able to listen to him play on Friday night and speak on Saturday afternoon. The Friday night program by the BSO, Yo-Yo Ma, and Tan Dun was truly incredible. Tan Dun conducted the entire concert in his crisp yet commanding style, including other pieces such as John Cage’s “The Seasons” and “Four Sea Interludes” from Ben Britten’s “Peter Grimes”. The real highlight of the concert, however, was “The Map” — a multimedia work that explored the indigenous music of Tan Dun’s hometown. The piece was commissioned expressly for Yo-Yo Ma, and composed by Tan Dun. The Map works its way through various native musical forms of the Hunan province of China. Antiphonal singing, tongue-singing, cymbals, pipes, leaf-blowing, and stone-drumming are among the concepts explored. The orchestra, lead by Tan Dun and voiced by Yo-Yo Ma, played orchestral responses to the native music, while huge video screens displayed video shot by Tan Dun while he was in Hunan. The orchestra often “interacted” with the video on screen. In one instance, Yo-Yo Ma held a “dialogue” with a female singer on the main video screen – she would call out to him in antiphonal song; he would answer back on his cello. The most fascinating concept for me was the stone-drumming. In the palm of one hand, the drummer holds a smooth, flat stone. In the other hand, he grasps a striking stone with a rounded end. By varying the distance between the palm of his hand and the flat stone, the drummer can produce a chromatic scale simply by striking the stones together. The flat stone can also be held over the mouth, and the mouth widened or narrowed to produce a different sound.
The next day, Becky and I attended a panel discussion entitled “Saving a Dying Musical Tradition.” While making The Map, a documentary filmmaker followed Tan Dun and recorded his own movie on the making of The Map, and this film was given its premiere screening at the panel. Yo-Yo Ma, Tan Dun, and an assortment of other related artists discussed “The Map” and the making of the video in The Map. Some of the most interesting comments of the talk came from Tan Dun and Yo-Yo Ma. Tan Dun spoke of his travels between China and New York City, where he mainly resides. He said that living in NYC gave him a greater appreciation of Chinese culture. Much like a fist pulling back to strike a surface, the further you get from a culture, the more impact that culture has on you and the more clearly you can see it.
One exchange was rather entertaining: during the making-of film, there was a scene in which Tan Dun was eating, drinking, and singing along with a group of young singers. Apparently, he had consumed a good deal of rice wine, and a red-faced Tan Dun was singing rather loudly and with much excitement. After the film was over, Yo-Yo Ma’s first comment to Tan Dun was: “What were you drinking, and do you sing that way at home??” The documentary filmmaker was also at the panel, and through a translator he told Yo-Yo Ma that some day he would like to go back to China and bring him along, and find him a nice girl. Yo-Yo told him that this was very kind, but that he would first have to ask permission of his wife. 🙂
The whole experience was incredible, and most likely not one that could be duplicated. Though, for those who were patient enough to read through all of this, I do have a special treat. I snapped several photos while we were at the panel discussion, and one was good enough that you can see The Man himself (after I did a bit of iPhoto ‘enhancing’): The Panel