The gifts of cellist Yo-Yo Ma; Heart in performance: let's not let it vanish
I was listening to Yo-Yo Ma playing Tchaikovsky's ''Rococo Variations'' with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra, Gerard Schwarz conducting, recently. I marveled anew at the soloist's prodigious technical gifts and his unique communicative powers.Skip to next paragraph
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In Mr. Ma's program biography, Isaac Stern calls him ''one of the greatest instrumental talents alive.'' Strong praise, fully deserved. At 28, he is already in the forefront among cellists, and indeed, as Mr. Stern so accurately avers, one of the finest solo instrumentalists before the public today.
What is it specifically that sets Yo-Yo Ma apart? It is not just his unique sound, or his exceptional technique, his ability to phrase imaginatively, his uncanny ear for shading and nuance, or even his ever-alert ear so keenly attuned to the orchestra around him. Rather, it is as if his cello were plugged directly into his heart.
This much heart, so eloquently controlled, is rare in any age. But these days , heart in the arts - the sense of an artist committing himself wholly to the performance and demanding that an audience commit with him - is rapidly vanishing from the music scene. It is one of the most alarming, and ultimately damaging, trends I can think of. For without heart - the essence of communication - the entire purpose of music is rendered null and void.
By heart, I do not mean an unbridled outpouring of sentimentality and bathos. Heart - some would call it soul - is something one must tame and nurture. The expression of heart in the right way is something an artist must contemplate and develop. He or she must deduce what each line of music is meant to express and how to make that line communicate just the right shading of feeling. It is a constantly demanding process that involves serious introspection and a certain amount of self-exposure - and a lifelong dedication to the refining of it.
This is a risky undertaking for the artist: This commitment of feeling, no matter how deftly controlled, is a challenge to any artist's resources. The artist needs time to restore his or her soul, gain new insights, and explore new vistas.
Nowadays, successful careers are a financial treasure trove involving the performers, their managers, and the recording companies. Because these highly acclaimed artists are in such demand, they find themselves with unmanageable schedules crammed with dates. Too often they cannot sustain the artistic energy needed for a 150- or 200-performance-a-year schedule for any length of time.
After a while, that cherished communicative edge drops out of their musicmaking so that the artists do not have to become totally immersed in the performance. They find a way to keep a musical distance - to remove heart altogether, or perhaps merely give the appearance of heart. Such gestures are ultimately transparent and bankrupt, cheating both audience and performer.
I was never more struck by all this than during the two concerts Claudio Abbado led with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) here this spring. A conductor who used to be so passionate, so exciting, had slowly metamorphosed into something altogether different - cerebral, calculated, chilly.