By Stephanie Powell
[Editor’s Note: Strings is in China! Stay tuned for more updates by managing editor Stephanie Powell as events unfold at Youth Music Culture Guangdong.]
On January 7, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Maestro Long Yu launched the inaugural Youth Music Culture Guangdong in Guangzhou, China—a two-week program for musicians between the ages of 18–35 that includes chamber-music and orchestra workshops, master classes, discussions, cultural-exchange events, and a final performance on January 15 by the YMCG orchestra and Ma.
The program is presented by the Department of Culture of Guangdong Province and organized by the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra and Xinghai Concert Hall. The faculty includes many members of Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, including Johnny Gandelsman (of the Knights and Brooklyn Rider), cellist Mike Block, and vocalist and virtuosic sheng player Wu Tong. Michael Stern, of the Kansas City Symphony Orchestra, will serve as music director and conductor.
Out of more than 600 applicants, 80 were selected to join Ma and Yu in a journey of musical and cultural exploration in China. Ma is serving as the artistic director, and Yu as the chairman of artistic committee.
After touching down in Guangzhou at 3AM on January 11, I was eager to make the most of my first day. I arrived at YMCG just in time for the chamber-music workshops and found violinist Johnny Gandelsman working with seven players onstage in the YMCG tent.
“Pretend like you’re a prince,” he told the cellist, suggesting how to approach a particular passage. “It’s very noble.” The cellist integrated Gandelsman’s feedback with a smile.
Following along with a miniature score that I could barely see on his music stand, Gandelsman cheerfully coached the students. He illustrated with body language, his violin in hand, letting the music communicate through him.
In the evening, it was time for the Silk Road workshops, where members of the ensemble rotate from group to group to coach students on Silk Road–techniques and improvisation. Multi-percussionist and YMCG faculty member Joseph Gramley listened to the students’ original work for the first time and went on to discuss groove, clarity, and articulation; incorporating vocals; passing off from one instrument to the next; and mixing in percussion techniques on the violin for flavor and depth.
A cellist shook out her hands after a whirlwind of pizzicato. “She’s holding the groove,” Gramley said. “Welcome to my life!” The group erupted in laughter and continued to hone their work with welcomed direction and feedback.