A 'passion for the music' Rehearse: During an open session, world famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma demonstrates the practice that precedes the performance.

October 30, 1997|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

It's not every school day that a student gets a chance to listen to a world-famous cellist play in an open rehearsal with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra -- and ask questions about his art afterward.

But yesterday, 580 students from five Baltimore and Baltimore County schools listened raptly as Yo-Yo Ma made musical magic with music director David Zinman and the orchestra, practicing for performances tonight, tomorrow and Saturday.

"For many of them, it's the first time they've been in Meyerhoff Hall, even though they live right down the street," said Hugh Carey, arts director of Booker T. Washington Middle School, as 400 of his students filed down the aisles.

For Ma and Zinman, it was a chance to share their enthusiasm about what they do with an audience of young people they rarely reach.

"I have kids about the same age [14 and 12]," said Ma, adding he hoped to help the Baltimore youths draw connections between "music and life."

Before the rehearsal began, Faith Michel welcomed the students and urged the orchestra, "Wave to your future audience."

Michel, a BSO staff member who arranged the visit as part of the orchestra's Arts Excel partnership with city and county schools, said the session offered a glimpse of how much practice matters.

"Let them see how hard these people work. They may be famous and travel around the world, but they didn't get there without a lot of hard work," Michel said.

During a break in the two-hour rehearsal, a first violinist impressed this truth on three students: Wendel Dandridge, a seventh-grader from Winston Middle School; Kelly Gribbin, a senior at Seton Keough High School; and Youyoung Lee, 14, a Bryn Mawr School student.

'They nailed it'

In explaining why orchestra members had pounded their feet on the floor in applause for the wind section after it had played the same passage in a modern piece repeatedly, Ellen Pendleton said, "It's a way of saying, 'Finally they got it perfect. They nailed it.' "

She added, "In the professional world, it's a given that you practice, know your part and have passion for the music. That's the starting point."

Then it was time for Ma to join the orchestra onstage for a run-through of Schumann's Cello Concerto in A minor. As soon as his hands touched the strings, making a rich golden sound, silence fell over the schoolchildren, some seemingly spellbound.

Ma's face reflected the music, with the cellist throwing his head back and closing his eyes on the tender and triumphant notes, winking at the concertmaster, Herbert Greenberg, during the interludes.

When he finished with a flourish, applause broke out and about 100 hands waved in the air.

One of the first questions fielded was about the name Yo-Yo and where in the world it came from.

"Do you think my parents had a sense of humor?" the cellist asked. It is a Chinese name, he added, given to him and other members of the same generation in his family. But, "Guess what? I wasn't born in China. Anyone heard of France? I was born in Paris."

37 years of practice

When asked how long he had been playing, he said he started when he was 5 and now he's 42.

"Who's good at math? How many years?" Ma asked.

"Thirty-seven!" the crowd cheerfully shouted back.

As a child, he said, he played for the Spanish master cellist Pablo Casals.

"Who else were you inspired by?" asked Chermia Lucas, 11.

Pointing to Zinman, Ma answered, "This man to my left, every time I play with him. He knows the music so well, he's teaching me new things all the time."

Then came the reason for practicing "every single day," said Ma with emphasis.

"If I call up a friend and discuss music, I call that practice," he said. "The most important thing is to make a connection and make those connections last. If you look at it that way, practice becomes fun."

Zinman interjected, "Even the greatest talent -- like Yo-Yo -- is growing."

Because this is Zinman's last season as BSO's music director, the Schumann concerto may be one of the last occasions the two friends perform together in Baltimore.

"You must have some dreams you want to go for," Ma said to the students, who ranged from sixth-graders to seniors and included a group from McDonogh School. He urged them to set themselves lots of goals, small and large.

'Complex emotions'

After the hourlong discussion, Ma displayed insight into the teen-age condition, and expressed his desire to make connections between art and life.

"Music helps put life in order. It's a way of describing in the abstract complex emotions," he said. "And if you're passionate about something you're holding onto, that'll get you through the teen-age years."

As students left the concert hall, Kelly Gribbin said she and her Bryn Mawr classmates were "captivated."

Donald Williams, a 13-year-old at Booker T. Washington, said, "It was beautiful the way the conductor was right on target."

And nobody could disagree with Johntay Miles, 12, also of Booker T. Washington, who said, "They play real long songs."

Pub Date: 10/30/97

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