Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra: making great music personal

fishing in the 3rd stream

yo-yo ma, "renaissance musician"

January 16, 2009

If you read Mark Swed’s review of LACO’s gala concert at Royce Hall last Sunday evening, featuring legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma, I hope you found your way to page E6, where the front-page article was continued. If you only read the front page, you probably pondered, as I did, the cause of Swed’s obvious dyspepsia. Was it something fried, spicy, or spoiled that he ate? Was he having personal difficulties? Or had he just had a bad day?

From the fifth word, I knew we were in for it. I mean, how many times have you seen an artist, just named Musical America’s Musician of the Year, referred to as “bait?” After only a one-sentence respite, Swed was at it again, ridiculing Jeffrey’s, and LACO’s, concert attire. And that’s just the first paragraph!

In the second paragraph, Swed a) called Ma’s playing inelegant and “a carnival of raw emotion and flamboyant white-tie virtuosity of old” (a “carnival of raw emotion?”); b) referred to Ma as an “anointed Great Artist” who “has gotten very slick at (and very wealthy by) hiding [his greatness]”; and c) called Ma’s latest release (Songs of Joy and Peace) “a clichéd crossover collaboration with jazz, pop, country and classical stars.”

That’s not all, but you get the idea. Swed eventually said very nice things about Osvaldo Golijov’s cello concerto Azul, Ma’s playing, the improvisatory brilliance of hyper-accordionist Michael Ward-Bergeman and percussionists Jamey Haddad and Keita Ogawa, and the brilliance of our orchestra. If you have not yet treated yourself to Lacey Huszcza’s blog highlighting Swed’s positive comments, do yourself a favor. But, one must wonder what bone Swed had to pick with Ma, to dig that deep a hole to begin with…

The criticisms that stick, however, are the ones that have a kernel of truth at their core. After the concert, we were fortunate to attend the reception for Ma, Golijov, and the other featured soloists. Reading Swed’s review, I couldn’t help but muse about watching as Ma harvested the adulation of scores of smitten LACO supporters. It occurred to me that there might be a thin line between “congenial” and “slick.”

When it was our turn to meet him, Ma congratulated us, as he had others, for the orchestra’s fortieth anniversary, as if we had played a significant role in that noteworthy accomplishment. On the other hand, when I prevailed upon him to autograph his 2007 CD Appassionato for our appreciative daughter-in-law (who lives in Northern California), he was most gracious. Not content just to sign his name, he addressed his note “To Maria,” he told her “we missed you,” and he mentioned the town where she lives. Overall, I cannot imagine meeting an adoring public on a daily basis with the equanimity, affability, cordiality and warmth that Ma exudes.

But this is The Stream, and we ought to be talking about Ma’s eclectic skills, tastes and interests, especially as they relate to jazz music. Swed complains that Ma’s 2008 release, Songs of Joy and Peace, is a “crossover collaboration with jazz, pop, country and classical stars.” Why, that is reason for celebration, not complaint!

If you had mastered an instrument as excellently as Ma and had performed most of the classical repertoire with his brilliance, wouldn’t you perhaps be looking for new areas to conquer, for new challenges to pique your interest and continue your growth, for colleagues that you admire to introduce you to new material?

Songs of Joy and Peace follows a number of prior jazz/classical crossovers that Ma has released. In 1984, he recorded Suite for Cello and Jazz Piano Trio with French composer/pianist Claude Bolling and his Trio. In 1989, he recorded an album with the French jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, who, with Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, founded the Quintette du Hot Club de France, the first, and arguably the finest, of all-string jazz bands. The CD was called Anything Goes: Stephane Grappelli & Yo-Yo Ma Play (Mostly) Cole Porter.

The 1992 CD Hush represents a fascinating classical/jazz collaboration between Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin. Music upon which they improvise includes that of Antonio Vivaldi, J. S. Bach, Charles Gounod, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Jean Barriere, and Bobby McFerrin. Soul of the Tango from 1997 presented the music of Argentinean composer and bandoneonist Astor Piazzolla. And in 2003, Ma collaborated with Cesar Camargo Mariano, Cyro Baptista, Nilson Matta, Paulo Braga, Rosa Passos, Helio Alves, Odair and Sergio Assad, Romero Lubambo, Paquito D’Rivera, Oscar Castro-Neves, Jose De Faria, Egberto Gismonti and Kathryn Stott in Obrigado Brazil.

On four occasions, Ma has contributed to the classical/“bluegrass” crossover genre with noted fiddler/composer Mark O’Connor and eclectic bassist/composer Edgar Meyer: 1996’s Appalachia Waltz; 2000’s Appalachian Journey, with Stephen Foster, Alison Krauss, and James Taylor (both in the studio and live in concert on DVD); and Heartland: An Appalachian Anthology, with Bela Fleck, Mike Marshall, John Jarvis, and others.

Yo-Yo Ma is a gifted teacher; his appearances on Sesame Street have been among the most endearing in that street’s history. In 1995, Sony released a four-part series on videotape (subsequently released on DVD) entitled Marsalis on Music. Filmed in the lovely, woodsy ambience of the Tanglewood Music Center, this series featured Wynton Marsalis and his Trio and Jazz Orchestra, Seiji Ozawa and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, Yo-Yo Ma, and a delightfully enthusiastic, rainbow bunch of elementary students. Ma is featured in the fourth segment, entitled “Tackling the Monster” (the monster being practicing), in which he disarmingly confesses that he hates practicing. Fortunately, Marsalis has a twelve-step strategy for “slaying the monster,” and with Ma’s help, he shows young musicians how to practice new or difficult pieces. Furthermore, Ma makes it clear that he can learn something from Marsalis, who helps him with his improvising. After Ma practices imitating Marsalis’ trumpet improvisations on his cello, the two of them conclude with a swinging duet on Duke Ellington’s “Mood Indigo.” Sheer enjoyment!


Thanks Bob! I must agree that Yo-Yo Ma's versatility truly makes him the incredible icon that he is. I have the recording of Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin that you reference in your blog - and it is amazing. These are two of my favorite musicians and this CD is a must-have!

  • —Lacey, January 16, 2009 03:18 pm

Couldn't agree more, Lacey! I have almost all of the music I cited in the blog (except the latest, Appalachian Journey and Heartland), and this has given me an opportunity to get it back out and listen to it. Great stuff!

  • —Bob, January 20, 2009 11:27 am

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