Happy Birthday, Yo-Yo Ma

Cellist Yo Yo Ma
Cellist Yo-Yo Ma

The Listeners’ Club wishes Yo-Yo Ma, who turns 60 today, a happy birthday.

Ma is one of a handful of front-rank musicians who can be described as a cultural ambassador. Over the years, he has been at home, not only at Carnegie Hall but also on Sesame Street (watch “The Jam Session,” “The Honker Quartet,” and “Elmo’s Fiddle Lesson”), Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and at a presidential inauguration. At the age of seven he performed for President John F. Kennedy. On Monday he appeared with dancer Misty Copeland on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, setting Twitter abuzz. 

Beethoven’s Cello Sonatas

Here is Yo-Yo Ma’s recording, with pianist Emanuel Ax, of Beethoven’s complete Sonatas for Cello and Piano, first released in 1987. At times shrouded in mystery and fire, this is music which captures the soul of the cello. Beethoven was the first major composer to write sonatas in which the cello and piano are equals. The early sonatas were written in 1796. The “Late Sonatas” were written in 1815.

Listen to Volume 2 and 3 to hear the complete set of sonatas.

Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto

Here is Dmitri Shostakovich’s ferocious First Cello Concerto (written in 1959 and dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich) from a 1983 recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra and conductor Eugene Ormandy.

From the taunting opening, the music is imprinted with the “DSCH” motive, Shostakovich’s initials translated into their corresponding pitches in German musical notation: D, E-flat, C, B natural. (In German notation Es is E-flat and is B.), The four note “DSCH” motive defiantly appears throughout other Shostakovich scores. (See this earlier Listeners’ Club post). There are echoes of Shostakovich’s 1948 score for the film, The Young Guard, which depicts the execution of Soviet soldiers by the Nazis. The Concerto also directly quotes a dark lullaby, sung to a sick child by Death (disguised as a caretaker), in Mussorgsky’s Songs and Dances of Death.

The first movement is propelled forward by an unrelenting, and almost inhuman, bass line. Amid sardonic statements from the woodwinds, the music feels simultaneously comic and terrifying. The sombre second movement, given the simple marking, Moderato, opens as a lament, gradually building into a prolonged scream of anguish.  Here, in the Concerto’s interior, away from the sarcasm of the outer movements, we’re able to glimpse the music’s most profound and terrifying essence. The movement concludes with haunting stillness (beginning at 14:52). After descending into a lonely, prolonged cadenza (the third movement), we’re plunged into a fiery dance (the fourth movement).

The Swan

We’ll conclude with the serene beauty of The Swan from Camille Saint-Saëns’ The Carnival of the Animals:

On the Town with Misty Copeland

Ballet star Misty Copeland heads to Broadway.
Ballet star Misty Copeland heads to Broadway.

 

Tomorrow, Misty Copeland, the first African-American woman to be named a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theater, will begin a two week stint on Broadway. Copeland will join the cast of the latest production of On the Town, playing the role of Ivy Smith. Here is a preview and here is Terry Teachout’s review of the production.

In the world of ballet, Misty Copeland is a ground breaker, redefining long-held views regarding the ideal body type of a star ballerina (she is muscular and five-foot-two and a half). Her celebrity status seems to be building bridges to new potential audiences. This interview provides some background on her extraordinary career.

On the Town, which originally opened on Broadway in 1944 with music by Leonard Bernstein and book and lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, has roots in ballet. It was inspired by Fancy Free, the 1944 Ballet Theater collaboration between Bernstein and Jerome Robbins. At moments Bernstein’s score for Fancy Free may remind you of Stravinsky (5:07), or the bluesy sounds of Gershwin. This impetuous music is far from the blocky, squarely symmetrical phrases of traditional eighteenth and nineteenth century ballet music. Listen for all the fun, irregular, rhythmic surprises and sudden meter changes that continually catch us off guard. Sometimes the music seems to be on the verge of spinning out of control, but, miraculously, it always works itself out.

Here is Bernstein’s 1944 recording with the Ballet Theater orchestra (predecessor to the American Ballet Theater):

On the Town contains the same delirious, off balance, jazzy energy that we hear in Fancy Free. It’s an idealized snapshot of an optimistic, larger-than-life New York of dizzying vitality, and slender, exuberant skyscrapers. In this carefree dreamscape, a group of sailors are on a 24-hour shore leave during wartime 1944. Nothing seems to matter except the present.

The 1960 studio cast recording, conducted by Leonard Bernstein (excerpts below), showcases the virtuosic panache of New York theater musicians in the golden age of the Broadway pit orchestra. The show’s opening explodes with the frenetic hustle and bustle of New York, New York. Bernstein’s score is filled with subtle, but sophisticated details that you wouldn’t find in the average Broadway song. Listen to the repeating bass line of New York, New York and you’ll hear the first four notes of the melody (2:02, 3:09, and 3:59). Then there’s the downbeat defying, canonic madness of the dance music beginning at 4:45 with its irregular meter changes. Later in the excerpt, Bernstein can’t resist sneaking in allusions to Prokofiev (beginning around 7:00) and Shostakovich (9:15):

 Additional Listening

  • Three Dance Episodes from On the Town: Bernstein’s concert suite is made up of significant dance music from the show: Dance of the Great Lover (from the Dream Ballet, Act 2), Pas de Deux (from the “Lonely Town” Ballet, Act 1), Times Square: 1944 (Finale, Act 1). “I believe this is the first Broadway show ever to have as many as seven or eight dance episodes in the space of two acts; and, as a result, the essence of the whole production is contained in these dances,” wrote Bernstein.
  • Lucky to Be Me is from near the end of Act 1.
  • Some Other Timethe final song in Act 2, hints at the blues with its lowered seventh.
  • Find the 1960 studio cast recording on iTunes, Amazon.
  • Find Fancy Free on iTunes, Amazon.