Yo-Yo Ma and Silk Road Ensemble Members Team Up with Maestro Long Yu for Inaugural Youth Music Culture Guangdong

Yo-Yo Ma, Silkroad Ensemble

By Stephanie Powell 

Music director Michael Stern fervently bounces along to Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 as he leads the string section of the orchestra. Stern pauses to offer thoughtful direction to the violins on breathing with their bows and asks the violas to sing into the cello section—and, also, to lighten the mood. “It’s joy,” he says of the passage in the score, “and it’s also just noise, right?” Laughter erupts. About 45 minutes into rehearsal, someone slips in through a side door. The students are so focused on the repertoire at hand they don’t notice.

 But I take notice of the tip-toeing man, with Jacqueline de Pré’s 1712 Strad in hand, headed toward the last seat in the cello section—it’s Yo-Yo Ma. He shares a music stand and dives right into the Beethoven. 

Ma is in Guangzhou, historically a major terminus of the Silk Road in the Guangdong province of China, acting as the artistic director of Youth Music Culture Guangdong—a program in its first year designed to shake up 80 young musicians with a flurry of chamber-music coachings, Silk Road Ensemble–style workshops, panel discussions, and two final concerts, where participants perform as chamber-music groups and as an orchestra.

The program is the brainchild of Ma, who tapped veteran orchestra players and some of his fellow Silk Road Ensemble members to join him, and maestro Long Yu—a powerful, almost single-handed force in China’s?classical-music scene. He holds director-level positions in multiple orchestras across the country, is the founder of the Beijing Music Festival, and much more. The participants, who together make up the YMCG orchestra, are between the ages of 18 and 35, and are all of Chinese descent from Guangzhou or neighboring provinces, Europe, and the United States.

The two-week-long program takes place at the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra’s rehearsal hall, located idyllically adjacent to the Pearl River. The hall is surrounded by a jagged skyline of metallic skyscrapers and cutting-edge architecture, and the backdrop proves a perfect setting in which to explore the juxtaposition of new and ancient. And exploration is exactly what Ma has set out to inspire. He’s not there to perform the Beethoven with the orchestra, which is billed on the final-concert program (though he can’t help but sit in and discuss the intricacies of the symphonic work with inquiring minds during rehearsal breaks). He’s there to take trained, technically proficient musicians on a journey to tackle the unfamiliar.

The faculty selected to help the students on that journey includes violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Shaw Pong Liu; cellist Mike Block; oboist Liang Wang of the New York Philharmonic; clarinest/composer Kinan Azmeh; trumpeter Bill Williams; percussionist and Silk Road associate artistic director Joseph Gramley; 22-year-old yangqin player Reylon Yount; singer/sheng virtuoso Wu Tong, and Harvard researcher Tina Blythe. Michael Stern, music director of the Kansas City Symphony and son of violinist Isaac Stern, takes charge as music director of the YMCG orchestra.
With the upswing of growth in China’s classical-music scene, it’s no surprise this powerhouse team found its way here. From the inaugural Shanghai Isaac Stern International Violin Competition, which took place last January, to the opening of Juilliard’s first satellite campus in Tianjin in 2018, there is undoubtedly a driving force in China’s classical-music scene that feels like it’s only continuing to build momentum. Concert halls are popping up all around the country: Construction of the China Philharmonic Hall is set to finish in 2019, and will offer the country’s philharmonic its first permanent (and translucent) 11,600-square-meter home. It’s hard to ignore the buzz—but why Guangzhou? I ask Ma and Yu—and they each credit the other for the idea.Guangzhou was the first Chinese port open to foreign traders and was a stop on the Silk Road—offering a convergence of cultures. “Guangzhou is a very interesting place,” Yu says. “It’s very open-minded and young people come here from all over China—from Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin—not just the Guangdong province.” 
This sense of diversity is central to the YMCG experience. “What’s interesting is that there are people here from all the different Chinese cultures, from all the provinces,” cellist Mike Block says, “so, there’s this internal energy. It seems like it’s important that the participants are all here together.”

Chinese conservatories have a reputation for producing musicians with razor-sharp technique, which is apparent during any rehearsal. But conservatories also tend to place a heavy emphasis on orchestral works—programming that YMCG challenges with daily chamber-music coachings and improvisation exercises.

“Education in China is a valid [topic] to be discussed—not only in China, but all over the world,” Yu says. “For this program, the most interesting [aspect to me] is opening more windows in the mind. [Showing participants] different ways to see—how you could be; how big the possibilities are as a person. You can change yourself. That is more important than only playing onstage. We can find thousands of talented players who are technically perfect, which [can be important], but I don’t want to see a perfect, technical machine onstage—I want to see a person full of life. 

“[Playing] music is like having a conversation with a friend, and if the [participants] are learning that—to have that joy, that conversation—that’s the reason that we are doing this. To understand more meaning in life. Yo-Yo has such a big heart; he brings all the young people to another world.”

 “Are you a comet?” Yo-Yo Ma asks a group of wide-eyed violists after they play a passage of Bach’s Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C minor. He pauses. “Are you a planet? Are you an alien?”

The blank stares continue, and then some laughter, as he tries to elicit excitement from the violists after a technically sound performance that still seemed to lack full heart. “This is the viola’s revenge,” he assures them. “We, too, are stringed instruments! This is your moment!”

This is a typical exchange during Ma’s chamber-music coaching sessions—he uses out-of-this-world metaphors, swaying along with the music, occasionally demonstrating on instruments, communicating in confident Chinese (albeit needing occasional backup on a few words, like “sister-in-law”), and with his breathing and body language.

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