At Yo-Yo Ma China music camp, classical musicians learn improv, how to try new things, and trust

Yo-Yo Ma
South China Morning Post

Nine days of classes in Guangzhou take students out of their comfort zone – and Ma, the event’s musical director, is always on hand to encourage, advise and inspire them to experiment and try the unknown

By Bernice Chan

Nervous and excited, 65 young musicians gather in the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra Rehearsal Hall for their first day of a nine-day music camp. Aged 18 to 35, most are from China, with a few from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, the United States and France.

They all wear sweatshirts bearing the letters YMCG, which stand for “Youth Music Culture Guangdong”. Amid the sea of black shirts it is difficult to spot the music camp’s artistic director, renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, until he stands up on the conductor’s podium.

The aim of the music camp is “deep learning”, Ma says, in which the students make connections with the people they meet, but also discovering what links classical music composers such as Beethoven and the improvisational Silk Road Ensemble that Ma founded in 1998.

It is the second such annual musical camp hosted by Ma in the southern Chinese metropolis. Participation is free for those who pass video auditions, as is food and accommodation. Students’ only expense is the cost of their travel to Guangzhou.

Once on board, they are asked to reflect on what it means to be a musician today and how they respond to events as artists. Ma wants them to play Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, the “Eroica”, because 2020 will see the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth and because his works are reflections of events both personal and political.

The students do a run-through of the symphony – and Ma sits in the back of the cello section. For Australian Chinese cellist Rachel Siu, 20, it is a thrill having him sitting two seats behind her as they play the first movement. It will be the first of many such interactions during the camp.

“You’d think someone as famous as Yo-Yo would not have the time and energy to speak to all these students who admire him, but he’s always checking in on us, making sure we’re happy. He is so full of life and has so much to say about music,” she says.

YMCG was established last year after Ma and Yu Long, a conductor and the music director of the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra, discussed working with young musicians in China. Yu persuaded the Guangdong government to provide financial support and venues for the music camp, and got sponsors on board to offer students hotel rooms, meals and transport.

Ma encouraged a team of musicians, including American bassist Edgar Meyer, Block and conductor Michael Stern – the late violinist Isaac Stern’s son – to come to the Chinese city.

Yu hopes the camp will open students’ eyes to new possibilities. “I don’t expect everyone to become a musician in the future, but maybe they can become a teacher or a leader of a music institution, or become a supporter or a sponsor,” he says.

The last day of YMCG is crunch time. Students have to perform their pieces – including improvised ones – in front of an audience at Guangzhou’s Xinghai Concert Hall. Siu is thrilled to have not only her paternal grandparents from the city watching, but also her mother, who flew in from Sydney.

Reflecting on her time at YMCG, Siu is enthusiastic about improvisation, and will look into signing up for violin workshops. And she has learned much about Beethoven. The camp has reaffirmed her love of music – and of Yo-Yo Ma, who gave her a high five immortalised in a photograph.

Ma says music is a way for him to understand the world and how people feel about things. And one of the issues – or lack of it – is trust.

“Music builds trust. I think there’s a huge lack of trust in our world, so how do you build it? Do we just get smaller and smaller so you only trust a few people? Or can you actually open up and say, it’s OK, we’ll commit. I think those are the things music tries to examine, and when the trust is there, everybody feels it.”

Ma hopes that the nine-day camp has established a certain level of trust among the participants, so that “when they meet one another at various times throughout life, that trust is going to be there – oh yeah, I know so-and-so from YMCG. That’s the kind of thing we want to build, just a little microcosm of a microcosm in musical form.”

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