The Final Word: Yo Yo Ma Live

I sometimes do crazy things to experience live music. In my late teens I met a woman—a friend of a friend of my girlfriend—who was a flautist attending the Mannes School of Music in New York City. She was a classic New Yorker, from a classic New York family. Though apparently demure and retiring, she had fearlessly ridden the city subways since childhood, taking the Broadway line at any hour of day or night (her stop was Dyckman Street, above 200th). All of her parents' money and energy, such as it was, had gone into their daughter's musical career, and I was so inspired by this level of focus and devotion that I hitchhiked from Boston to New York and back in order to attend her first concert, a performance of the two Mozart flute concerti. My presence was remarked upon as the act of a true friend, but I was the beneficiary: It was a great concert, and a good start to a life of experiencing the "call" of live music.

The most recent episode came just last week. A couple of months ago I was invited by a law firm to a performance of Yo Yo Ma with the Phoenix Symphony. My brother Dave has extolled Ma ever since an evening he spent at Tanglewood last summer in which Ma played all six of Bach's Suites for Unaccompanied Cello. Dave was most impressed by the 10- or 15-second silence which followed one of the suites—the audience was so moved by the aching tenderness of Ma's interpretation that they simply didn't know what to do when he stopped playing.

I had already been interested in Yo Yo Ma. He went to the same school that I did (Harvard), and lived in the town I grew up in, and where my mother still lives. I'd always imagined him living in the same neighborhood as a high-school friend of mine, also a cellist, and I'd somehow gathered that he possessed an openness striking in someone so illustrious.

A week or so after the invitation arrived, I read that Ma would also be playing in Albuquerque the night before the Phoenix date. My little brain started churning: what a great opportunity! Hear one of the world's greatest cellists on two successive nights, with two different orchestras and conductors, playing two completely different programs. Also simmering away was the idea that I might actually get to meet Ma at a dessert which was to follow the Phoenix performance.

Yo Yo Ma perfectly exemplifies the used-car slogan: "Must see to believe." I'm far from being an authority on his recordings—though I now plan to become more of one—but I'd gotten the idea that all the commotion about him wasn't justified by the reality.

Well, in person it is. Yo Yo Ma is the most singular musician to watch that I have ever seen. It's not simply that he brings charisma to a performance—many great soloists do that—but that he presents himself humbly, locks into a trance with the other musicians, spends much of his time in active communication with those musicians, and plays a phenomenally communicative instrument (the same Stradivarius once owned and played by Jacqueline du Pré) with tremendous beauty and insight.

Sometimes in the presence of a master you are made aware of the mastery, the thoroughness with which a piece of music is known; you leave feeling that no depths have been left unplumbed. With Ma it was different: I felt that each playing of the work might yield some completely new discovery, that each combination of soloist and orchestra would be unique.

Yes, it was crazy to squeeze not just one night of music 60 miles away into a busy schedule, but to fly 500 miles to see the same person the very next evening. It was phenomenally worth it. If you have the opportunity to see Ma play, don't pass it up under any circumstance.

Best of all, I did get to meet the man. He was as open as I had guessed (and learned from Barbara Jahn's very interesting conversation with him in Vol.13 No.1). Best of all—from my standpoint—he does live in the same neighborhood as my high-school cellist friend!

Hi-fi does its best to re-create the sonics of live music, and we too often fail miserably. Even at our best, many years from now, we'll never capture the unique excitement of a live performance which happens just once. Vive la différence.