Good Fortune

STRING OF

At 9, Colin Stokes idolized Yo-Yo Ma. At 17, he's sharing a stage with his favorite cellist.

February 05, 2005|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

It was finally here, the day Colin Stokes would rehearse with Yo-Yo Ma.

In a third-floor walk-up on Mount Vernon Place, the high school student sat barefoot, as he did every morning, practicing scales on his cello. Later he would lace up his wingtips, shined for the first time, straighten his favorite Jerry Garcia tie and head south toward Bethesda to rehearse with the planet's most acclaimed cellist, a man Colin had admired almost as long as he had been playing the instrument. Signs of his devotion were scattered around the apartment: the Ma poster on the wall, the thick stack of CDs, the book My Son, Yo-Yo by Marina Ma.

Most important, however, was Colin's genuine Ma artifact: a signed program from the cellist's concert in Founders Hall, Hershey, Pa., on May 14, 1997.

Colin was 9 years old. He sat in Row P, 008, Orchestra right.

Today he would share the stage with Ma during the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's rehearsal for the opening of the Music Center at Strathmore. There would also be six other cellists, three of whom were high school students who had competed with him for the honor of playing with the Grammy Award-winning cellist.

A lot had happened since Colin first saw Ma. First, he found a great teacher, Troy Stuart. He had become completely serious about the cello. And as his lessons and musical needs increased, his family had decided he should leave high school in his hometown of Gettysburg, Pa., to study at the Baltimore School for the Arts, where Stuart teaches.

His parents rented an apartment on Mount Vernon Place and took turns supervising him. On this auspicious day, Feb. 3, Harry Stokes was on deck to drive Colin to Strathmore.

Colin felt ready. He had practiced the piece with his fellow students and the BSO cellists who would fill out the eight-musician ensemble. He had survived his first rehearsal under the intimidating baton of BSO music director Yuri Temirkanov. He had thoroughly memorized the music: Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 by Heitor Villa-Lobos.

Now it was a matter of finding its soul and the wings of performance.

"You want the performance to be easy - and it is if you've practiced," Colin said, somewhat hopefully. "If you're not prepared enough, it feels like you're not being sincere. ... Yo-Yo plays so naturally that it feels like something he doesn't work at. It doesn't feel like he's playing the cello. It's just music.

"He thinks the music you play is directly representative of who you are. That the music is what you are as opposed to something you do."

Six feet tall, the young musician is as slender and graceful as his cello's bow. His curly dark hair, chiseled face and large green eyes lend a soulful appearance. It's easy to believe him when he says he is often swallowed up by his music.

A Post-it note on the door reads LUNCH because he so regularly forgets to take it. There are just so many things to distract him - like midterm exams, audition tapes and the fact that he and Ma share the same birthday. Both musicians were born Oct. 7. This year, Ma will be 50 and Colin will be 18.

Slightly preoccupied, Colin asked his dad to help clean a fresh coffee spill off his Jerry Garcia tie ("I used to be a complete Dead-head"), then carefully slipped the magenta tie-dyed T-shirt he made with his girlfriend over his cello to keep it safe from scratches. After placing the instrument carefully in its case, he double-checked his basic equipment: his "trademark" woven belt from Honduras that used to belong to his older brother, his wallet, his phone, his keys, his music.

Once again, lunch was left behind.

Meeting his idol

Yo-Yo Ma stood at the back of the concert hall, listening to Temirkanov rehearse as various BSO staff members whispered welcomes. He smiled and shook hands, displaying all the graciousness and good will for which he's also famous. As the music from Tchaikovsky's "The Waltz of the Flowers" flooded the hall, the cellist persuaded a BSO publicist to dance in the aisle with him.

Colin Stokes, who was also listening to the orchestra, tried not to stare: In less than an hour, he would have this man as a partner.

As it turned out, he met him even sooner. When the high school students left the hall to warm up, they ran right into Ma. And, of course, he stopped to chat. He had read about each one of them: 15-year-old Jeffrey Chu of Gaithersburg; 16-year-old Rachel Gawell of Arnold; 13-year-old Tianheng "Tim" Wang of Boyds; and 17-year-old Colin.

He shook Colin's hand. "We've got something in common," he told him, nodding at the shoulder straps attached to the student's cello case.

"I know!" Colin said. "We've got the same birthday!"

"Are you serious? That's great!"

After Ma had met everyone, he asked for their opinions of the Villa-Lobos piece. And he wanted to know what it was like to work with Janice Chandler-Eteme, a soprano he said he was eager to meet.

He also told them to relax.

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