Maestro’s Tale: How Yo Yo Ma stepped up to play in my orchestra

Maestro’s Tale: How Yo Yo Ma stepped up to play in my orchestra


norman lebrecht

May 04, 2015

Slipped Disc was first to report that Yo Yo Ma nobly sat in for a sick orchestral cellist in a Vancouver Symphony Orchestra concert on Friday night. Now music director Bramwell Tovey gives his account:

bramwell tovey2

(I’m) starting to read several different versions of what happened on Friday when Yo-Yo Ma played in the Vancouver Symphony cello section for Dvorak’s 8th symphony. This is what happened.

When I entered the theatre around 7:45pm, I was told by Sarah Boonstra, our stage manager, that one of our cellists was ill and unable to play that night. The musician concerned (who was devastated to miss this concert, of all concerts,) is a fabulous cellist, completely dedicated to the VSO who also happens to teach my daughter, Emmeline. His wife is a key member of our administration and was backstage with me just before the concert, at 7:59pm. Joanne Harada, VP of Artistic Administration was also present, as were Sarah and Dale Barltrop, our concertmaster. Yo-Yo, was also there, socializing as he so often does before a concert.

Yo-Yo is a tremendous colleague who often plays in the orchestra for the second half when he’s played a concerto before the intermission – there are several other soloists who are similarly generous – James Ehnes and Gil Shaham come to mind, but to play in the first half when the second half contains a concerto as mammoth as Dvorak’s for cello, well, that’s unheard of in my experience.

So, we were gathered at the side of the stage, hemmed in by the staircase which was recently re-decorated when used as a film set for “If I Stay.” The lugubrious colo(u)rs brought drama to the movie and somehow enhanced the conversation we were having.

yo yo ma exchannge

I told Yo-Yo of the poor musician’s plight and jokingly (really, honestly, just as a joke) asked if he’d deputize. He was already dressed. Without demur, almost anxious to play, he went downstairs to fetch his cello (the Stradivarius that Jacqueline Du Pré played on her first recording of the Elgar cello concerto.)

Dale suggested we get Yo-Yo onstage at the end of the brief Slavonic Dance that opened the concert. So that’s what we did. Yo-Yo moseyed on, almost incognito as I was introducing the symphony to the many young listeners present.

In the second half Yo-Yo played his heart out in the Dvorak concerto, following with a movement from Saygun’s Partita as an encore. Post concert he was incredibly generous with his time at a reception, visiting with fans and talking and even more impressively, listening to everyone. He made a wonderful speech to the assembled crowd.

Yo-Yo gave a brilliant young local cellist, Tate Zawadiuk, the chance of a lifetime – he invited Tate to play his cello while he, Yo-Yo, took in the reception and the crowd of fans who were assembling. The next day with the VSO Music School Sinfonietta, he gave a masterclass on Elgar’s Serenade forStrings which lifted and inspired everyone present.

Last August, my own daughter, Emmeline had been given the same opportunity to play the same cello in a similar situation when Yo-Yo and I performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra in Saratoga.

Yo-Yo’s a great man and a great musician. Unfailingly generous, always keen to give as much as possible, frankly, I don’t know how he sustains such genuine bonhomie without letting up on his musical intensity. He’s the real deal, the full circle. Whether talking with him privately, one on one, or listening to him address the crowd, he is the same person.

In Las Vegas yesterday, two men hammered each other with increasing violence until one was declared a winner with a prize of millions. At the VSO Music School Yo-Yo Ma taught a room full of people how to think bigger, realize possibilities within themselves, at the end of which, everyone won.

The bigger riches were in Vancouver. Hopefully, what happened in Las Vegas stays there.

Thanks Yo-Yo. We love you – please come back soon.

yo yo ma in the wings

photos (c) Vancouver SO


  • John says:

    When I was a youngster thirty years ago and Yo-Yo wasn’t known anyplace, we tried to get him for a soloist with my little community orchestra, but couldn’t come together on dates. Then he became famous almost overnight and we gave up. Looking back, I’ll always wonder if he would have come just the same? He was in Denver last week for a solo recital and his rapport with over a thousand of us was intimate and so personal. What a privilege to have experienced him in person this one time.

  • Isaac Gil says:

    Hi from Brazil.

    I’ m a novice in Cello and a 63 yo man ( birthday in May 24 ). I read this story and that is one of my reasons to fly more than 11.000km to se Mr Ma in Cincinnati-OH next week, May 13 nexo my anniversary. Either I saw the movie said.

    I hope I can talk and maybe learn with the great Mr Ma, and perhaps finger Du Pre’s Cello.

    I am eager and hopeful to meet him.

    Thank you All

    Isaac Gil
    São Paulo – Brazil

  • Emil Archambault says:

    First after the orchestra itself, of course.

  • Kurt Link says:

    Yo Yo plays with the Chicago Symphony cellos fairly often. He sneaks into the back of the section at the last minute to play in the pieces that follow his concerto performance. He and the section obviously enjoy it!

  • monica connors says:

    Yo Yo Ma has always been inspiring and a true gentleman. Although I do not know him personally he makes people feel like they could!

  • Diane says:

    I was there. Astonished. Deeply respect him as a great artist and a great person. And also, Maestro Tovey, we admire your incredible work towards this city.Truly grateful to have you. We love you – please stay with us.