YMCG: Yo-Yo Ma on Chamber Music, Bach & Innovation

By Stephanie Powell

Yo-Yo Ma takes his seat next to Stern at the podium sans sheet music, cello in hand. Stern jumps right into the music, but quickly stops the group. “It shouldn’t sound angry—it should sound defiant,” he tells the orchestra. Ma stands up and stomps his foot and looks at Stern. Laughter erupts before the orchestra returns to the Dvorak.

Next up, Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. Ma makes his way back to the cello section as Stern asks the orchestra, “Are you still nervous?” You could hear a pin drop. “Me too,” Stern says as the orchestra relaxes a bit and giggles. “It’s not a matter of stress, it’s a bit of ‘what’s going to happen’—we know what’s going to happen next: We’re going to play nice music—that’s what’s going to happen. Let’s relax, have fun, and let’s play the Stravinsky!”

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Yo-Yo Ma poses with students after a chamber-music workshop

In the afternoon I stumble into the main rehearsal hall only to find Ma swaying and following along with sheet music in hand with a group of students rehearsing Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin. “He’s the roots,” Ma tells the violins as he points to the cello, “and you’re the petals.”


Ma takes his time coaching each section, and eventually makes his way to the violas during an impassioned part of the score. “This is the viola’s revenge! We, too, are stringed instruments!” The students laugh. “This is your moment,” Ma assures them.

He goes on to discuss the beauty in Bach’s music. “[When playing Bach] always trust the pace of harmony, the bassline, and always look for patterns,” he says after a complex dialogue between violin and oboe in the score. “Don’t make something so beautiful and forget where it comes from.”

Cellist Mike Block works with YMCG students during a Silk Road workshop

In the evening, it’s time for Silk Road workshops. YMCG students were broken up into small chamber groups and then each selected one of six Silk Road Ensemble tunes to learn by ear and rearrange to perform at a chamber-music concert. YMCG faculty members take turns visiting the different groups to offer advice and to discuss texture changes, passing off the bassline, and tempo. Walking through the halls of the GSO, each corner sings with music that sounds like it comes from both the center of the earth and the beginning of time.


Members of the Silk Road Ensemble perform during a panel discussion on innovation and tradition.
Members of the Silk Road Ensemble perform during a panel discussion on innovation and tradition.

After a full day of rehearsal and workshops, students eat dinner and then pack on the bus to travel to Sun Yat-sen University for a panel discussion with YMCG faculty on innovation and tradition.

“Everyone knows a very different truth,” Yo-Yo Ma tells a packed audience at the university. “People are more connected than we think, and [the Silk Road Ensemble] is an example of what we can do when we bring people together.” With Michael Stern MC’ing the event, faculty members take turns discussing what brought them to Silk Road—from cellist Mike Block who worked with the group during a workshop at Tanglewood when he was searching for an outlet to “channel [his] rebellion” to Syrian clarinetist/composer Kinan Azmeh who “received an email,” which stirs laughter from the audience as Ma hangs his head low in a joking manner.

“You can communicate with music, and everything makes sense,” sheng player Wu Tong shares.

After a heartfelt discussion—peppered with a few performances, of course—Ma muses his final point, “Tradition is innovation. All traditions had to be invented. So go to your own edge.”