Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach Project

Yo-Yo Ma’s touring again, but his Bach Project isn’t just a series of concerts.

Yo-Yo Ma — The Bach Project
It is a journey motivated not only by his six decade relationship with the music, but also by Bach’s ability to speak to our common humanity at a time when our civic conversation is so often focused on division. […] Alongside each concert is a day of action, a series of conversations and collaborations that explore how culture can help us imagine and build a better future.

As well as the concerts, he’s been meeting with students, community groups and artists to share the idea that culture connects us and is needed now more than ever.

Yo-Yo Ma’s days of action
Ma said that he had come to Anacostia because of the community’s efforts to strengthen itself through culture. “You give of yourselves from substance,” he said. “It’s not money, it’s not just work, it’s that you give of yourselves, and, when you do that, that’s when beauty emerges.” He then played the Prelude of Bach’s G-major Suite. Kymone Freeman, the station’s co-founder, approved. “This is the type of culture that should be exposed to our children,” Freeman told his listeners. “The first thing that gets cut is art. The last thing that gets funded is art.”

[…]

At the Bowl, Ma said little, disappearing into the music. For the cathedral concert, which was presented by Washington Performing Arts, he was in a more boisterous mood. He wore a colorful scarf around his neck, and explained that he had found it at an Anacostia boutique called Nubian Hueman. “I’m doing all of my holiday shopping there,” he said. At the halfway point—there was no intermission—he motioned for the audience to stand, which was taken as a signal for an ovation. But Ma wasn’t seeking adulation: he wanted everyone to stretch. He proceeded to do a few jumping jacks while holding his multimillion-dollar cello in one hand.

Here he is explaining the reasons behind the new album and tour.

Yo-Yo Ma – The Making of Six Evolutions – Bach: Cello Suites

But I couldn’t resist also adding this video here, too. It’s quite remarkable, not just to Yo-Yo’s playing at such an early age, but for Bernstein’s wonderful introduction.

Leonard Bernstein presents 7-year-old Yo-Yo Ma’s high-profile debut for President John F. Kennedy
The New York Times reported that on November 29, 1962, a benefit concert called “The American Pageant of the Arts” was to be held with “a cast of 100, including President and Mrs. Kennedy, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Leonard Bernstein (as master of ceremonies), Pablo Casals, Marian Anderson, Van Cliburn, Robert Frost, Fredric March, Benny Goodman, Bob Newhart and a 7-year-old Chinese cellist called Yo-yo Ma, who was brought to the program’s attention by Casals.”

As biographer Jim Whiting noted, “the article was noteworthy in two respects. First, it included Yo-Yo’s name in the same sentence as those of two U.S. presidents and eight world-famous performers and writers. Second, Yo-Yo had been identified in a major newspaper for the first time. It would hardly be the last. In the years since then, the New York Times alone has written about him more than 1,000 times.”

From the comments:

It makes me weep to see how Bernstein articulates a vision of open internationalism and welcome in this nation, which has now become so closed.

Yo-Yo Ma played before President Kennedy at 7, and also played for President Obama’s inauguration. What a life for him!

Bossy Bernstein

What happens when two musical heavyweights clash.

Who’s the boss?
For a conductor to address an audience prior to a concert is nothing out of the ordinary. But for that conductor to essentially disavow the performance, before a single note is played? That would be almost unthinkable. And yet, this is precisely what happened at Carnegie Hall on April 6, 1962, at a matinee concert of the New York Philharmonic. Glenn Gould and Leonard Bernstein were scheduled to perform the Piano Concerto No. 1 by Brahms, but after intermission, only Bernstein emerged onstage. Gould, who played infrequently in public, was notorious for canceling concerts at the last moment, and at first, Bernstein had to reassure the audience that the afternoon’s soloist was indeed in the house. Then, the conductor went on to deliver a highly controversial speech that has since become part of musical lore.

The article from The American Scholar goes on to transcribe part of that speech, and here’s an audio recording of it and the subsequent performance.

Brahms: Piano Concerto No. 1 – Gould/Bernstein – Bernstein’s Speech included

Here’s Bernstein’s own take on it, and the press attention that followed:

The truth about a legend
So I said to Glenn backstage, “You know, I have to talk to the people. How would it be if I warned them that it was going to be very slow, and prepare them for it? Because if they don’t know, they really might leave. I’ll just tell them that there is a disagreement about the tempi between us, but that because of the sportsmanship element in music I would like to go along with your tempo and try it.” It wasn’t to be a disclaimer; I was very much interested in the results—particularly the audience reaction to it. I wrote down a couple of notes on the back of an envelope and showed them to Glenn: “Is this okay?” And he said, “Oh, it’s wonderful, what a great idea.”

So I went out, read these few notes, and said, “This is gonna be different, folks. And it’s going to be very special. This is the Glenn Gould Brahms concerto.” Out he came, and indeed he played it exactly the way he had rehearsed it, and wonderfully too. The great miracle was that nobody left, because of course it had become such a thing to listen to. The house came down, although, if I remember correctly, it took well over an hour to play. It was very exciting. I never loved him more.

The result in the papers, especially the New York Times, was that I had betrayed my colleague. Little did they know—though I believe I did say so to the audience—that I had done this with Glenn’s encouragement. They just assumed that I had sold him down the river by coming out first to disclaim his interpretation. It was, on the contrary, a way of educating the audience as part of Thursday night’s procedure. All this was not only misunderstood, but repeated and repeated and multiplied exponentially by every other newspaper that wrote about it.

And, for good measure, here’s another clip of Bernstein and Gould together, more harmoniously this time, perhaps.

Glenn Gould’s U.S. Television Debut: Bernstein Conducting Bach’s Keyboard Concerto No. 1 in D minor

Leonard Bernstein at the movies

There’s going to be a film made about the incredible Leonard Bernstein.

Cannes: Jake Gyllenhaal to Play Leonard Bernstein in ‘The American’
“Like many people, Leonard Bernstein found his way into my life and heart through ‘West Side Story’ when I was a kid,” said Gyllenhaal. “But as I got older and started to learn about the scope of his work, I began to understand the extent of his unparalleled contribution and the debt of gratitude modern American culture owes him. As a man, Bernstein was a fascinating figure—full of genius and contradiction—and it will be an incredible honor to tell his story with a talent and friend like Cary.”

This article from Film School Rejects places this news in the context of other biopics, and thinks the announced intention of telling the story in five parts, like movements of a symphony, will be help the film stand out.

Jake Gyllenhaal to star in a Leonard Bernstein biopic with a twist
Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is far from an expected period drama about a controversial historical figure. Instead, it unabashedly mashes up the past and present in a cheekily vibrant portrait of a young woman. David Fincher’s The Social Network isn’t just “the Facebook movie,” it is an unsettling case study that’s far more concerned about building up the enigma of Mark Zuckerberg than breaking him down into bite-size pieces for easy consumption. The fact that Loving Vincent is the first fully-painted animated feature film is a stunning achievement, literally combining the medium of film with Vincent van Gogh’s own legacy as a painter to stellar results.

And it ends with this intriguing paragraph.

In the tradition of dueling biopics, this news recalls theories that Steven Spielberg’s upcoming West Side Story remake is in fact itself an unconventional biopic about Bernstein — deduced from the fact that Spielberg also held a table reading for a Bernstein biopic at the same time he’s searching for his West Side Story cast. IndieWire critic David Ehrlich has mentioned the idea on the Fighting in the War Room podcast, while Collider’s Matt Goldberg surmised that the filmmaker may just do a Bernstein film first or instead of the musical. Either way, we’re getting an extra dose of the famed composer’s work.

We can only hope the film contains half as much energy as in this performance of one of his Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.

Gustavo Dudamel – West Side Story – Mambo – Bernstein

And here’s another favourite of mine, Candide, this recording from 1960.

Bernstein Conducts Overture to Candide, New York Philharmonic