Oyabe, Japan -- Yo-Yo Ma did not have to come to this tiny town yesterday.
In order to make an afternoon rehearsal for an evening performance with David Zinman and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the cellist took an 18-hour flight from his home in Boston, went through customs in Tokyo, took a second flight to Toyama, where the BSO has been staying, then got in a car and drove to the new concert hall here, which rises out of the obscurity of Oyabe's rice fields.
Later, the sell-out audience, most of which had never attended a concert before, went almost berserk over Ma's performance of the Dvorak Concerto. Hundreds flocked to his dressing room for autographs, and dozens more waited patiently so they could cheer as he left the hall.
Ma could not have been more gracious as he signed autographs and let himself be photographed with children; and he could not have waved goodbye more warmly as he got into the waiting car.
But as the car drove away, the flushed-looking cellist collapsed into his seat.
"I came down with the flu two days ago in Boston," he confessed.
Most superstar musicians in his condition wouldn't have come to so unimportant a place.
And certainly not if they were scheduled to play the Elgar Concerto today in Suntory Hall for Tokyo's most discriminating audience, in a concert that will be broadcast live on televisions throughout Japan (and will be shown on MPT Nov. 25 at 7 p.m. and Nov. 27 at 10 p.m.)
"It's always been important for me to come to out-of-the-way places," the cellist explained. "When you play for other audiences you're up against the 'I've-heard-this-so-many-times' attitude. Many of the people here must have been going to their first concert and listening to the Dvorak Concerto for the first time. No wonder they were excited."
But concert-hardened audiences in Tokyo, not to mention New York, London and Paris, react in the same way to Ma. Although still only 39, Ma has occupied for nearly a decade a position as the world's most popular classical instrumentalist -- something no previous cellist, not even Casals or Rostropovich, has achieved.
Even people who don't ordinarily listen to classical music love Yo-Yo Ma, and they apparently feel like better human beings for it.
"Can you blame them?" asked BSO trumpet player Edward Hoffman. "Putting aside what an incredible player he is, Yo-Yo's the personification of kindness and graciousness, and that comes out when he plays the cello.
"How many times do you play with a soloist who looks back and listens to the guy in the orchestra who's performing a solo with him."
It's even less often that one encounters a soloist whose playing is so rarely routine. When Ma performed the Dvorak and Elgar concertos less than a month ago in Baltimore, his performances were different on each of the three nights he appeared. At yesterday afternoon's rehearsal, they were different still.
And two hours later, in the actual concert, the Dvorak had changed again.
Sitting in the audience with his 9-year old daughter, Mariama, BSO associate conductor David Lockington, who is himself a superb cellist, could barely contain his excitement.
"The man's energy is phenomenal," Lockington said. "His genius is that he's able to keep his repertory fresh -- he reinvents each piece each time he plays it."
"There's no question that freshness is paramount," Ma said during the drive from Oyabe to Toyama. "Even if you know a piece, you're a different person every day and any good work can be played in different ways. Sometimes I try to establish a fresh perspective by taking cues from how David (Zinman) feels or how the orchestra feels. The important thing is to try. The interpretation may go too far in one direction and fail; but if you don't keep trying to change you don't grow."
What's it like to work with someone who never performs a piece the same way?
"With Yo-Yo, it's easy," Zinman said. "Whatever he does is very natural. I don't feel I have to be with him, I just am."
"He can only say that because he's just about the greatest collaborator in the business," the cellist said.
The two musicians have been collaborating steadily for 15 years. They made their first record together five years ago, a coupling of the Barber Concerto and the Britten Cello Symphony that won a Grammy. Their just-released, second album combines music by Bloch, Bartok and Stephen Albert. And they are about to make a third album -- this time with the Philadelphia Orchestra instead of the BSO -- of three new works commissioned by Ma: concertos by Christopher Rouse, Richard Danielpour and Leon Kirchner. Ma performed each premiere with three different orchestras -- the Philadelphia, the Houston Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony. Each time, however, the conductor was Zinman.