By Stephanie Powell

Music director Michael Stern fervently bounces along to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 as he leads the string section of the orchestra. Stern pauses to offer thoughtful direction to the violins on breathing with their bows and asks the violas to sing into the cello section—and, also, to lighten the mood. “It’s joy,” he says of the passage in the score, “and it’s also just noise, right?” Laughter erupts. About 45 minutes into rehearsal, someone slips in through a side door. The students are so focused on the repertoire at hand they don’t notice.

But I take notice of the tip-toeing man, with Jacqueline de Pré’s 1712 Strad in hand, headed toward the last seat in the cello section—it’s Yo-Yo Ma. He shares a music stand and dives right into the Beethoven.

Ma is in Guangzhou, historically a major terminus of the Silk Road in the Guangdong province of China, acting as the artistic director of Youth Music Culture Guangdong—a program in its first year designed to shake up 80 young musicians with a flurry of chamber-music coachings, Silk Road Ensemble–style workshops, panel discussions, and two final concerts, where participants perform as chamber-music groups and as an orchestra.

The program is the brainchild of Ma, who tapped veteran orchestra players and some of his fellow Silk Road Ensemble members to join him, and maestro Long Yu—a powerful, almost single-handed force in China’s
classical-music scene. He holds director-level positions in multiple orchestras across the country, is the founder of the Beijing Music Festival, and much more. The participants, who together make up the YMCG orchestra, are between the ages of 18 and 35, and are all of Chinese descent from Guangzhou or neighboring provinces, Europe, and the United States.

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Violinist Johnny Gandelsman coaches a group of YMCG participants on Beethoven’s Septet in E-flat major, Op. 20. Photo by Liang Yan

The two-week-long program takes place at the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra’s rehearsal hall, located idyllically adjacent to the Pearl River. The hall is surrounded by a jagged skyline of metallic skyscrapers and cutting-edge architecture, and the backdrop proves a perfect setting in which to explore the juxtaposition of new and ancient.

And exploration is exactly what Ma has set out to inspire. He’s not there to perform the Beethoven with the orchestra, which is billed on the final-concert program (though he can’t help but sit in and discuss the intricacies of the symphonic work with inquiring minds during rehearsal breaks). He’s there to take trained, technically proficient musicians on a journey to tackle the unfamiliar.

The faculty selected to help the students on that journey includes violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Shaw Pong Liu; cellist Mike Block; oboist Liang Wang of the New York Philharmonic; clarinest/composer Kinan Azmeh; trumpeter Bill Williams; percussionist and Silk Road associate artistic director Joseph Gramley; 22-year-old yangqin player Reylon Yount; singer/sheng virtuoso Wu Tong, and Harvard researcher Tina Blythe. Michael Stern, music director of the Kansas City Symphony and son of violinist Isaac Stern, takes charge as music director of the YMCG orchestra.

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Yo-Yo Ma and Long Yu speak during a YMCG panel discussion. Photo by Liang Yan

With the upswing of growth in China’s classical-music scene, it’s no surprise this powerhouse team found its way here. From the inaugural Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition, which took place last January, to the opening of Juilliard’s first satellite campus in Tianjin in 2018, there is undoubtedly a driving force in China’s classical-music scene that feels like it’s only continuing to build momentum. Concert halls are popping up all around the country: Construction of the China Philharmonic Hall is set to finish in 2019, and will offer the country’s philharmonic its first permanent (and translucent) 11,600-square-meter home. It’s hard to ignore the buzz—but why Guangzhou? I ask Ma and Yu—and they each credit the other for the idea.

Guangzhou was the first Chinese port open to foreign traders and was a stop on the Silk Road—offering a convergence of cultures. “Guangzhou is a very interesting place,” Yu says. “It’s very open-minded and young people come here from all over China—from Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin—not just the Guangdong province.”

This sense of diversity is central to the YMCG experience. “What’s interesting is that there are people here from all the different Chinese cultures, from all the provinces,” cellist Mike Block says, “so, there’s this internal energy. It seems like it’s important that the participants are all here together.”

I don’t want to see a perfect, technical machine onstage—I want to see a person full of life.

—Long Yu

Chinese conservatories have a reputation for producing musicians with razor-sharp technique, which is apparent during any rehearsal. But conservatories also tend to place a heavy emphasis on orchestral works—programming that YMCG challenges with daily chamber-music coachings and improvisation exercises. “Education in China is a valid [topic] to be discussed—not only in China, but all over the world,” Yu says. “For this program, the most interesting [aspect to me] is opening more windows in the mind. [Showing participants] different ways to see—how you could be; how big the possibilities are as a person. You can change yourself. That is more important than only playing onstage. We can find thousands of talented players who are technically perfect, which [can be important], but I don’t want to see a perfect, technical machine onstage—I want to see a person full of life.

“[Playing] music is like having a conversation with a friend, and if the [participants] are learning that—to have that joy, that conversation—that’s the reason that we are doing this. To understand more meaning in life. Yo-Yo has such a big heart; he brings all the young people to another world.”

“Are you a comet?” Yo-Yo Ma asks a group of wide-eyed violists after they play a passage of Bach’s Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor. He pauses. “Are you a planet? Are you an alien?”

The blank stares continue, and then some laughter, as he tries to elicit excitement from the violists after a technically sound performance that still seemed to lack full heart. “This is the viola’s revenge,” he assures them. “We, too, are stringed instruments! This is your moment!”

This is a typical exchange during Ma’s chamber-music coaching sessions—he uses out-of-this-world metaphors, swaying along with the music, occasionally demonstrating on instruments, communicating in confident Chinese (albeit needing occasional backup on a few words, like “sister-in-law”), and with his breathing and body language.

Ma is in fact so committed to effective communication that his body language almost betrays him during a rehearsal of the Dvorak Cello Concerto in B minor with the YMCG orchestra. Stern and the participants are lost in the moment, moving so quickly through the music that Ma, bowing up front on the podium, leans so far forward that Stern has to grab him to keep him from toppling over.

During my first day observing chamber-music sessions and Silk Road workshops, I can see bemusement in the participants’ eyes. This isn’t about perfecting intonation or achieving technical accuracy—it is about finding freedom in the music, and revealing a part of themselves. “Today I said to the section leaders, ‘Look, your job as section leader is to communicate energy, character, gesture,’” Ma says. “And you have your back to everybody, so your shoulders—you have to communicate through that frame. If you want to communicate life, you actually have to look at your body space for what it is—and then, you actually have to exceed it.

“Think of air and boiling water,” he says. “If you’re a pot with a lid on it, the water’s cold, the air takes up a certain amount of body, and once it heats up, [the lid] starts to pop—that’s what you have to do. You have to show what is expected of you, and then you actually have to go further.”

This is not a school, Ma says of YMCG, “but what I love about it is that it’s what a school could be.” The model is simple—start out with a diverse faculty with varied skillsets, but similar values. “We don’t say, ‘Oh, this is the way to teach,’ but through those values, we sign on to sort of say, ‘OK, how can we do a 360 on music? How can we acknowledge different styles of music in large-group playing, and how do you take it to small groups?’”

The results are transformative. The participants’ schedule is jam-packed—the day starts at 10 am with a three-hour orchestra rehearsal, which is usually punctuated with laughter in between demanding passages, thanks to Stern and Ma’s witty banter. Chamber-music rehearsal follows for two hours before a Silk Road workshop. A panel discussion that melds music, philosophy, innovation, and tradition caps off the day.

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Yo-Yo Ma sits in the back of the cello section during orchestra rehearsal at YMCG. Photo by Li Lewei

“What I like about coaching is helping the participants figure out what’s in the music. It’s kind of like music archeology,” violinist and Silk Road Ensemble member Johnny Gandelsman says. “Sometimes, if you don’t have a lot of experience with playing chamber music or looking at the score, you might not realize how special something is, so I like working with the groups on details, and helping them discover things for themselves.

“And then, once there is that moment of recognition, of, ‘Oh, I get it!’ That’s really rewarding—they’re excited about the music,” he says. “And now they have tools to succeed: to know how to listen to each other, how to look for unified sound. Building trust and having these building blocks that they can then take into their lives when this is over.”

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 works as a physicist, and had about three years of violin lessons in his youth. Since then, he’s been essentially self-taught (which seems impossible upon hearing him play) and more than anything, he always wanted the opportunity to perform Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite with an orchestra. YMCG is his chance.

What I like about coaching is helping the participants figure out what’s in the music. It’s kind of like music archeology.

—Johnny Gandelsman

The Silk Road workshops are unmistakable highlights for the faculty and participants. On the first day of the workshops, the students choose one of six Silk Road tunes as a place to start, and they then have to improvise. Walking through the GSO during the workshops, I hear music singing from each corner that sounds like it comes from both the center of the earth and the beginning of time.

Block, director of Silk Road’s Global Musician Workshop, heads the workshops at YMCG. “Apparently the way that classical music is taught [in China] is very regimented,” Block says, “and the same can be said about American classical teaching. The warnings that I got were that it was somehow even more regimented here. So we were unsure how the participants would react to the Silk Road–band opportunity, and I felt from the first session I had with them that they were really no different than American classical musicians. They had various walls that we wanted to break through, but across the board they rose to the occasion.”

Cellist Mike Block coaches a chamber group before a YMCG “Tomorrow Concert.” Photo by Liang Yan

Block has led similar workshops with Silk Road’s Global Musician Workshop across the United States—even at Tanglewood last summer. Leading workshops in such strict orchestral arenas, like YMCG, can be challenging, he says. Typically the workshops take place in an environment where the participants are choosing to be there because they want to improvise and want to be creative. “I’m coming into an orchestral environment where participants aren’t necessarily expecting or planning to improvise, and that’s a very different environment to do this work in,” he says. “Yo-Yo is very passionate about taking those values and bringing them to people who don’t know they need them, or don’t know they value them yet. So, that’s a big part of why I’m here—to have this experience with them.”

There are three nights of final concerts, two chamber-music and one orchestral, that demonstrate the transformative power of this program. The final orchestral performance is energentic and fearless—the orchestra members distinguish themselves with a performance delivered with a contagious sense of enthusiasm and confidence. It is an exhilerating evening, and what one might expect given the participants’ intensive orchestral training.

A chamber group takes in the audience’s response after a triumphant performance of a Silk Road–style arrangement during a Tomorrow Concert. Photo by Liang Yan

But throughout the program, students have also been preparing two sets of chamber-music works for YMCG’s “Tomorrow Concerts.” The concerts take place over two nights—dividing the participants into two sets of chamber groups. In the first half of each Tomorrow Concert program, chamber groups perform a piece of standard repertoire from Debussy to Bach to Steve Reich. In the second half, participants perform works they arranged and composed in the Silk Road workshops. After witnessing a handful of the workshops myself, I think I have a sense of what to expect.

I have, after all, watched the participants work through incorporating unnatural playing techniques and sounds into their compositions—like using the violin as a percussive instrument, fumbling awkwardly with unfamiliar instruments, and interspersing their arrangements with vocals and choreography. The participants’ skills and confidence grew, and it feels obvious. But the transformation that takes place overnight from rehearsal hall to the stage still manages to leave me, and the audience, speechless (figuratively).

During each half of the Tomorrow Concerts series, personality, humor, and confidence shine through the seven groups vibrantly. They take turns owning the stage, breathing together, looking at each other during passages that require dialogue between instruments, and leaning into one another during the standard-repertoire section. The Silk Road–workshop pieces deliver such freedom and variety that the faculty can’t help but shout, yell, stand, and clap after—and during—each performance.

The concerts demonstrate an assortment of explosive cello chopping, solid percussive techniques, stunning vocals, a little shimmying around the stage, and even Mission Impossible medleys.

A violist from the second group grabs the microphone and addresses the faculty, who are all sitting together in the audience. “This has been . . . ,” she says, and pauses, “so damn hard.” The faculty cheers. “We’re going to show you what is courage, what is brave, what is happy.” She then looks into the crowd for the participants who performed in the previous night’s Tomorrow Concert. “Group A—you asked for this,” she says before her group jumps into an electrifying performance.

The energy in the hall instantly changes from polite and attentive to a rowdy musical party. At the close of the final group’s performance, the faculty stands up to give a standing ovation, and you could sense that a door had opened for these students, and they had just started to walk through.

“I still remember the first day when all the [participants arrived],” Yu says. “I saw their eyes, their confusion—you know, they [didn’t] understand what was going on. [Many came] here because of Yo-Yo, but then they realize later that it’s not only Yo-Yo himself, it’s also the things that he brings to them . . . I saw all of their eyes onstage shining with a lot of confidence, a lot of fun, and they finally know why they [are playing]. Today, they became [alive].”

Despite coaching many of the groups, Block says, they still had the ability to surprise him. “For the performers who played during both halves [of the Tomorrow Concerts], it seemed like they were able to access different parts of themselves for the different types of music—and that is really exciting.”

Even Yu admits a slight bias for this project—after more than 20 years of advocating for and advancing the classical-music scene in China—and that says a lot. “YMCG will help the future generation,” he says. “Yo-Yo and I have both talked about this—he’s over 60 and I’m over 50—and for us, for the rest of our lives and careers, the most important [task] is how to help young people.

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Yo-Yo Ma after a performance of Dvorak’s Cello Concerto with the YMCG orchestra. Photo by Li Lewei

“It’s my life—music is my language. I tried working for 20 years to help China make a lot of things happen, and a lot has worked. Today [classical music in] China [is] so different than when I came back from Europe. I’m very proud to say we’ve made huge musical changes. [With YMCG], Guangzhou has now opened a new window—[one] that we can now explore for other musicians in China.Creativity and imagination—those are two words that are now very important for young musicians in China.”

The passion is tangible, and (in my case) even tear-inducing. “I think there are as many ways to awaken passion as there are people because it’s so individual and you can’t just say, ‘I want passion!’ It’s something that happens I think when people are using all of themselves,” Ma says. “What makes people remember something forever? What happens I think is, when you are maximally open to something, and you meet a different world, you will maximize the moments with that passion.”

When I ask him for his final impressions of the participants’ Tomorrow Concert performances of their Silk Road arrangements, he replies, “That’s a big victory moment.

“They’ve self-identified. That’s what we hope for. Because you can build from that. Nobody’s going to ever forget what they did. They can forget all we’ve said—all the [orchestra and chamber music] we played—it doesn’t matter. But if they build from those performances they’re in good shape—[they can remember] ‘we used all of ourselves to say something that we really wanted to say.’”

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YMCG music director Michael Stern during the final orchestra concert. Photo by Li Lewei

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