French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky as Anfione, the King of Thebes. (Boston Early Music Festival)
Join Classical New England and World of Opera for what you could call a “screwball tragedy,” Agostino Steffani’s 1688 Opera Niobe: Regina di Tebe (“Niobe, Queen of Thebes”), a work that lay forgotten until its revival in 2008, and subsequent North American premiere at the 2011 Boston Early Music Festival.
The opera opens with Anfione, the King of Thebes (sung brilliantly by the emerging French countertenor Philippe Jaroussky), who wants nothing more than to hang up his scepter and immerse himself in metaphysical contemplation of the harmony of the spheres. But Anfione’s celestial ambitions are dashed by a litany of earthly troubles: a foreign invasion, a kidnapping, adultery by enchantment, a dancing bear and some very angry gods.
In Steffani's opera, the King of Thebes is at turns an enlightened demi-god, an enraged, jealous husband and a bellicose warrior-king…and that's just one of many complex characters in this spectacular opera, bringing to life Ovid's timeless tale of love, pride and divided loyalties. We also get Queen-with-attitude, Niobe herself (sung by Boston favorite Amanda Forsythe), the lovesick courtier Clearte (Kevin Skelton), who pines for Niobe, the enemy prince of Thessaly (Matthew White), who also has designs on the haughty Queen; Jose Lemos is the wisecracking nurse Nerea, Colin Balzer and Yulia Van Doren as the young lovers Tibernio and Manto; Charles Robert Stephens as Manto’s father, the blind soothsayer Tiresia; and Jesse Blumberg in a crackling role as the evil magician Poliferno. Stephen Stubbs and Paul O’Dette co-direct the Boston Early Music Festival Orchestra in a production recorded by WGBH engineers at the Cutler Majestic Theatre in Boston.
At the time he composed Orfeo ed Euridice (“Orpheus and Eurydice"), Christoph Willibald Gluck wrote, “I believe that my greatest labor should be devoted to seeking a beautiful simplicity…and there is no rule which I have not thought it right to set aside willingly for the sake of the intended effect.” Gluck and his librettist, Ranieri de’ Calzabigi, even wrote a manifesto in their intention to reclaim the story from the singers. Above all, they sought for the music and the text to be straightforward and direct: a “noble simplicity” that serves to reinforce the power of the drama.
That, at least, was the intent. What happened next was that Gluck’s “revolutionary” opera got translated (from Italian to French), compromised, and bowdlerized. As Martin Pearlman writes, “What we generally hear in performances of the opera is not the bold, innovative work that Gluck originally wrote. Rather, it is most often either a later version by Gluck himself, an adaptation by Berlioz, Liszt or others, or a composite of more than one version—all of which have watered down the succinctness and impact of the original drama.”
That’s not the case in this Boston Baroque production from March of 2012, captured in concert at the New England Conversatory’s Jordan Hall. Singing the role of Orfeo is countertenor Owen Willetts. Euridice, his opposite, is soprano Mary Wilson. The third solo role is that of Amor – Love, sung by soprano Courtney Huffman. And, as the program book notes, you will hear “Choruses of nymphs and shepherds, of monsters and furies, of Elysian heroes and heroines, and of followers of Orpheus.” Martin Pearlman conducts the orchestra and chorus of Boston Baroque.
Yo-Yo Ma's discography encompasses over 30 years of recordings. Some have set a new standard for concert repertoire and some have broken new musical ground. As a body, they represent an artist of seemingly limitless possibility. Here are some favorites from the staff of Classical New England.
To purchase CD's or downloads of any of Yo-Yo Ma's recordings, visit Ariama.
About six years ago I was excited to be going to a private interview with Yo-Yo Ma. I had interviewed him a number of times through the years, but that didn't mean I didn't get the butterflies of anticipation. I fed my little boy, gathered my notes, and was ready to bolt out the door as soon as my new babysitter arrived. Except that she didn't. She phoned and made some excuse. All I knew was that I had to leave NOW, that I didn't have anyone else to leave my child with and that meant taking a 4-year old boy with me to this important interview.
We gathered a quiet stuffed animal toy and headed out to the car. I tried to impress on him that we were going to meet a really important musician, highly respected, an international superstar. "And his name is Yo-Yo Ma." My child stretched out his arm, palm up and said in a serious tone "Yo-Yo Ma? I already know him, Mommy!" "You do?" "Uh huh...he's the one who did music with Elmo on Sesame Street."
Yo-Yo Ma played part of Dvorak's Cello Concerto with Elmo, the little red monster, back in 2006. Maybe you'd like to hear the whole thing on his recording entitled Concertos from the New World.
A year ago Yo-Yo Ma visited the station where I was working at the time. When he arrived, a crush of people clustered at the doorway of the overheated room to meet him. Over the next 20 minuites or so I watched him remarkably making his way around the packed room: smiling easily, joking and shaking hands with everyone who wanted to share a story or memory, or get a signature - and that was nearly everyone in the place.
Very soon it was time for him to leave, and I followed him out as he was briskly ushered from the room. Despite the hurry, he paused as soon as he realized I worked in the radio station’s music department. He turned to me, clasped my hand between both of his and looked me directly in the eye to tell me with great intensity how valuable my work is. (My work!) The rest of the fast walk to the front door was accompanied by his personal, heartfelt thoughts about the importance and necessity of public radio, in light of recent threats to Federal funding. And then, within a few minutes time, he was gone and off to his next engagement.
When I look back on that memory I always think of the music playing during the reception: Yo-Yo's Obrigado Brazil both captured the feel of that warm and humid spring evening, and summarized the grace and gratitude that live at the center of both his musicianship and his beautiful human spirit.
I met Yo-Yo Ma for first time when he came to the BSO for an appearance in February 1993. It was to be a joyous occasion, featuring the Boston premiere of a highly acclaimed new work written for Yo-Yo Ma by the Newton-based composer Steven Albert. Sadly, though, Albert had died in a car crash on Route 6 on Cape Cod the previous December.
Since then, Yo-Yo has participated in many BSO premieres, including works by John Williams, Christopher Rouse, Leon Kirchner, John Harbison, and Oswaldo Golijov. But the Cello Concerto by Steven Albert, one of the very last works the composer completed before that accident, stands out as something special for me. Of the many fabulous recordings by Yo-Yo Ma, the Steven Albert Concerto is the most unjustly neglected.
Recently I read last year’s biography of Apple Computer founder Steve Jobs, written by Walter Isaacson. Jobs was one of the most brilliant minds of our time, and his tastes in music gravitated towards other brilliant minds of our time, primarily Bob Dylan and The Beatles.
Isaacson reports that, when Jobs met Yo-Yo Ma in 1981, they struck up a friendship, Jobs being “deeply moved by artists who displayed purity.” Eventually Ma visited Jobs’s home in California, playing Bach in the kitchen. Jobs responded by saying, “Your playing is the best argument I’ve ever heard for the existence of God, because I don’t really believe a human alone can do this.”
No matter what your position is on the existence of God, there’s no denying the power of Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach.
In 2005 we invited the three musicians of the Diaz family into our studios for a live performance – violinist Gabriela, violist Roberto, and cellist Andrés. Their parents had come in to watch from the control booth, and their father said to me, “We have a photograph of you hanging in our house!”
I was alarmed. Then he reminded me: Yo-Yo Ma had given a cello masterclass a couple of decades earlier at the New England Conservatory. Andrés was a fellow student and he asked me to accompany him in the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto. And while I didn’t remember anyone snapping a picture, I do remember the positive charge in the air during that class, and the supple, natural way that Yo-Yo turned his phrases when he demonstrated. Organic. Colorful. Communicative. Even though I was busy trying to act like an orchestra (I hate piano reductions!) it was just incredibly easy to follow Yo-Yo Ma.
Years and years later, after I’d gone into radio, he would say things in interviews like “Well, you know, I just try to play in tune.” Right. And then he’d describe his joy in immersing himself in the sound worlds of cultures and musicians that are foreign to him, trying to learn musical languages that are not easy. For him, he says, the test of a musician is how quickly he can catch on to those languages.
He caught on to Andrés and me instantly. And handed us an exquisite collection of ideas and solutions. It’s an incredibly generous way to live a life.
His musical performances are brilliant, but over the past few weeks I’ve had a great time listening to the words of Yo-Yo Ma. As I’ve prepared interview excerpts for broadcast during this “Month of Ma,” it’s fascinating to hear his take on so many things: from caring for his cello to working with vocalist Bobby McFerrin and violinist Mark O’Connor to the enormous value of working with Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street.
Through it all, what shines through is the joy he feels from sharing music with others, and way in which he integrates all these various aspects of his life: “I’m not good at thinking in categories,” he says. “I don’t think about, ‘this is classical music, and this is now contemporary music or adult contemporary music, or baroque music’ – it’s all a form of expression. …I think what all musicians want to do is to be inside the music, is to be in the moment.”
It’s an all-encompassing approach to his art, reflected perfectly in “The Essential Yo-Yo Ma” - a great feast of special moments in music!
San Diego, California, summer of 2005. Rock-concert electricity punctuates the Civic Theatre, a 3,000 seat barn of place prone to B-list rockers and touring Broadway shows. But this time, the Bics are getting flicked (really!) for … a 22-piece world music "big band" led by the redoubtable Yo-Yo Ma, a latter-day Basie directing his assemblage of Silk Road superstars not from a piano bench, but from behind his cello … or, in the spirit of the music, occasionally from the morin khuur, a traditional bowed-string instrument from Mongolia.
And truly it is a spectacular ensemble, featuring such dazzling performers as Chinese pipa virtuoso Wu Man, Indian percussionist Sandeep Das, and Iranian kamancheh (think small fiddle) artist Kayhan Kalhor. Together they impress not only for their incredible musicianship, but for the remarkable compositions they contributed to the CD that is the basis for this live concert: Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon.
And whereas the initial foray by Yo-Yo and his Silk Road Ensemble (When Strangers Meet) had the feel of a noble experiment, the follow-up was something altogether: epic, virtuosic, and positively symphonic. It's nothing less then a sweeping soundtrack to a journey from the Far East through Central Asia to Europe's shore, as suggested by such evocative titles as "Distant Green Valley," "Summer in the High Grassland," or "Night at the Caravanseri." Truly Beyond the Horizon … and off the hook!
During a recent trip to California I met and played with a lot of fellow cellists. And as I visited these colleagues in music schools and private homes, it seemed that there was always a picture of the resident cellist posing with Yo-Yo Ma: on a refrigerator door with a five-year-old wielding a quarter-size cello and a broad grin; on a conservatory bulletin board with a beaming student in concert dress; exquisitely framed with a beloved cello teacher, hung in pride of place on the wall above the piano.
Maybe it’s too easy to take Yo-Yo for granted. He’s seemingly everywhere, the classical music ambassador to the world. In 1999 he brought the world to us in Solo, a collection of pieces for a single cello. A sample of the titles gives you a sense of the far-flung origins of the music: Mark O’Connor’s Appalachia Waltz, Bright Sheng’s Seven Tunes Heard in China, David Wilde’s The Cellist of Sarajevo. Those, along with works by Tchrepnin and Kodaly, form a collection that distills Ma's mission to its essence, utilizing a bow and four strings to take us on a journey around the world and into the depth of the human spirit.