By Stephanie Powell

It’s foggy and cold in Guangzhou, China, on my second day at Youth Music Culture Guangdong—a program spearheaded by musical masterminds cellist Yo-Yo Ma and maestro Long Yu. Violinist Johnny Gandelsman sits down with me to talk about the program, which has been “percolating” among the Silk Road Ensemble members for some time now. We discuss the intricacies of coaching participants, who for the most part are embarking on a journey fraught with foreign concepts: improvisation, confidence, and finding freedom in music.

About a quarter of the participants are professional musicians, Gandelsman says, holding positions in some of China’s most well-respected orchestras. Others, Ma later tells me, aren’t necessarily studying music performance or have aspirations of becoming professional musicians. One student was studying at a university to get his PhD in physics, and had about three years of violin lessons in his youth. Since then, he’s been essentially self-taught (which seems impossible once you see him pick up his instrument) and more than anything he always wanted the opportunity to perform Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite with an orchestra. YMCG was his chance.

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YMCG orchestra, Ma, and Stern rehearse the Dvorak

In the afternoon, YMCG orchestra members and Ma gather around music director Michael Stern‘s podium to rehearse Dvorak’s Cello Concerto in B minor. “This is a smiley moment—a lovely moment,” Stern says. He pauses. “A selfie moment!” Laughter often punctuates rehearsal in-between demanding passages. Stern and the participants are so lost in the moment, moving so quickly through the music that Ma, bowing up front on the podium, leans so far forward Stern has to grab him to keep him from toppling over. Ma talks a lot about body language and communication—evidently something he practices, too.

During a solo-cello portion of the Dvorak, Ma leans over toward the cello section, softly whispers, and nods. A few run-throughs later, Stern says, “Can I ask you a question . . . Are you scared?” Queue the blank stares. “The act of saying I am not scared helps,” Stern reassures the orchestra members and welcomes them to shout the phrase back.

“I am not scared,” one string player shouts as everyone else looks around and then laughs.

After orchestra rehearsal, it’s time for chamber-music rehearsal. The group was split in two and will deliver two chamber-music concerts on January 12 and 13, and are programed in two parts: In the first half, chamber groups will perform a piece of standard rep from Debussy to Bach to Steve Reich. In the second half, participants will perform the works they arranged and composed in the Silk Road workshops. The faculty gave groups the option of choosing from one of six Silk Road tunes as a starting point, and then they had to improvise.

Cellist Mike Block, YMCG faculty and director of Silk Road’s Global Musician’s Workshop, kicks off the January 12 concert by introducing the inspiration behind the YMCG workshops. “This is music [the participants] wanted to perform, and music they made on their own,” he says and pauses. “So, I take no responsibility for what you’re about to hear.” The hall fills with laughter, which sets the perfect tone for what’s about to come. The character, humor, and confidence of each of the seven groups shine through vibrantly. Group names include Feeling Good, Guangzhou Barbecue, and Ocean—because all the participants “are staying at the Ocean Hotel,” a group members says and laughs.

The groups take turns owning the stage, breathing the same breathe, looking over at each other during passages that require dialogue between instruments, and leaning into one another during the standard repertoire section. The Silk Road–workshop section delivers such freedom and variety that the faculty can’t help but shout, yell, stand, and clap after each performance, which included Mission Impossible medleys, explosive cello chopping, solid percussion techniques, and stunning vocals.

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YMCG faculty members give a standing ovation after the first chamber-music concert

The energy in the hall went from a typical chamber-music concert to a rowdy, musical collaboration. And with the final group’s performance, as the faculty stood up to give a standing ovation, you could feel that a door had opened for these students, and they had just started to walk through.

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