Yo-Yo Ma, Citizen Artist

cellist Yo-Yo Ma
cellist Yo-Yo Ma

Last week’s On Being interview with Yo-Yo Ma was a great reminder that Ma is more than one of the world’s great cellists. He’s a “citizen artist”, a philosopher, and an insightful commentator on the role of music in contemporary life.

These days, Yo-Yo Ma enjoys transcending imagined boundaries and playing a wide variety of music, most notably through his Silk Road ProjectHe considers the label “classical music” an arbitrary commercial category. He likens performing onstage to being the host of a party where soloist and audience share in a powerful communal experience. His belief in the importance of humanity in music-making was echoed last week in an interesting post by Neoclassical author, Holly Mulcahy.

What better way to start the week than by listening to Yo-Yo Ma perform the Prelude from the first of J.S. Bach’s Six Suites for Solo Cello? Listen to the way Bach is able to outline rich harmony using a single solo instrument.

The bow, which draws out sound, is the lungs. The strings on the instrument are the vocal chords.

-Yo-Yo Ma

Beethoven’s Ghost

The manuscript of Beethoven's "Ghost" Trio
The manuscript of Beethoven’s “Ghost” Trio

When you hear the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Trio in D Major, Op. 70, No. 1, you’ll immediately understand why this piece earned the nickname, the “Ghost” Trio. It’s some of the most eerie, strange and terrifying music ever written. It constantly keeps you off guard, taking sudden and unexpected turns, like a shadowy apparition which is there one minute and gone the next. As the second movement unfolds, it may play tricks with your perception of time.

Beethoven’s ability to pack a universe of drama and color into three instruments is amazing. There are moments which seem strikingly symphonic (he had just finished the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies). At times, even tonality seems to be on the verge of slipping away (the second movement’s prolonged trills in the low depths of the piano which confuse the ear).

Gustav Mahler said, “A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” It’s easy to get a similar sense with this trio. The outer movements are emotionally far removed from the haunting Largo. There are moments of giddy joy, love and gratitude. All of these contrasting emotions are a great reminder that this music expresses much more than the frustrations and torment of a man who was slowly losing his hearing. Beethoven’s music transcended his life, tapping into something much deeper and more universal. In that respect he “heard” things no one else could.

Beethoven wrote the two Op. 70 Trios in Heiligenstadt during the summer of 1808. Around this time he was contemplating an opera based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The opera remained unwritten, but its ghosts seem to have found their way into Op. 70, No. 1.

Here are Isaac Stern, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax in concert in Paris in 1992:

  1. Allegro vivace e con brio (0:00)
  2. Largo assai ed espressivo (6:02)
  3. Presto (17:09)

Clean Bandit’s Electronic-String Fusion

Electronic Band, Clean Bandit
British electronic band, Clean Bandit

If you haven’t heard the British fusion band, Clean Bandit, take a moment and listen. Founded in 2009, the band has hit on an interesting blend of string quartet and electronic dance music. The group, which includes violinist Milan Neil Amin-Smith and cellist Grace Chatto, grew out of an undergraduate string quartet at Cambridge University. This article describes how Clean Bandit developed almost by accident-the result of experimentation with pre-recorded string quartet tracks.

Dust Clears was released last June:

Rather Be, released in January, debuted at number 1 on the UK Singles Chart:

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We’ll Paint You a Rainbow

Heartbeats FoundationLast March, cellist Lynn Harrell and a host of fellow all star musicians, including John Williams and Jessye Norman, released a special recording called We’ll Paint You a Rainbow. The recording raises money for the HEARTbeats Foundation, a project Harrell and his wife founded in 2010. The Foundation’s noble goal is to bring the transformative power of music to disadvantaged children throughout the world. The joyful reaction of these children in Nepal is a testament to the universal appeal of music and the value of the project. Check out Harrell’s account of the trip to Nepal here and read an article in this month’s Strings Magazine.

Here is an excerpt from the recording session featuring Harrell and soprano Christine Brewer performing Harold Arlen’s Over the Rainbow. Enjoy the music and consider supporting the HEARTbeats Foundation’s mission.

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Remembering Janos Starker

Janos Starker

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cellist Janos Starker died yesterday in Bloomington, Indiana at the age of 88. You can read about his extraordinary career as a performer and teacher here and here. You may also be interested in this documentary.

Here is his recording of the opening movement of Bach’s Suite for Solo Cello, No. 1 in G Major:

This 1956 recording of the Dvorak Cello Concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Walter Susskind is also remarkable:

Here are the Second and Third Movements of the Dvorak. Find other Starker recordings on iTunes.