When Yo-Yo Ma met Kathryn Stott

Few could have predicted that one awkward August encounter would lead to such a beautiful marriage of cello and piano
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Yo-Yo Ma is running late, most likely because he’s far more generous with his time than his handlers would like him to be.

What was booked as a 10-minute interview has turned into a rambling, half-hour-long discussion of everything from Leonardo da Vinci’s bowed keyboard device, the viola organista, to the incomprehensible dialects of Yorkshire. Before the world’s most eminent cellist moves on to his next task, however, he has time to give the Georgia Straight one small, but welcome, piece of advice.

“Grow old gracefully,” the 58-year-old musician says, “by maintaining your curiosity.”

It sounds like a benediction, and perhaps it is. But it could just as easily be the mission statement of the musical conversation that he and pianist Kathryn Stott have maintained for more than 25 years. The two, who’ll play a sold-out Vancouver Recital Society matinee this weekend, perform with such unforced intimacy that they seem to breathe together, their two very different instruments merging into one singular voice.

“Two things account for that,” Ma explains, on the line from his Cambridge, Massachusetts, home. “One is accidental meeting, followed by good chemistry. And the other thing is the curiosity to explore.”

Ma isn’t joking when he says that he and Stott met by chance. In fact, their first encounter sounds more like something from a West End farce than the beginnings of a beautiful partnership. As the pianist has rather famously explained, her first sight of Ma came when, after a holiday, she walked into her London digs and discovered “a Chinese man in his underpants playing the cello” in her living room.

Guilty as charged, Ma admits.

“My wife and I were very, very young, in our early 20s, and we rented a flat in London from Nigel Kennedy,” he recalls. “And it was one of those hot London August months, like really, really hot. So I was practising practically stark naked, and suddenly in walks Kathy, and she says to me, ‘Who are you?’ Which was my response as well: ‘Who are you?’ ”

Apparently, Kennedy hadn’t told Stott that he’d sublet their apartment, nor had he mentioned his roommate to Yo-Yo and Jill Ma. Things could have gone quite horribly wrong, but instead Ma got dressed, everyone had a laugh, and the cellist and his wife quickly became fast friends with the pianist and her boyfriend. Music, Ma adds, came later.

“Finally, Jill said, ‘Hey, you like Kathy so much, why don’t you do some playing together?’ ” he says. “And we’ve been playing together ever since.”

Recorded evidence includes Soul of the Tango, an exploration of Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla’s work that won a Grammy Award in 1999, and the similarly honoured Obrigado Brazil, from 2004. Works by Piazzolla and his Brazilian contemporaries Heitor Villa-Lobos and Camargo Guarnieri feature in their touring program, a thoughtfully assembled survey of hybrid forms that will delight aficionados of contemporary music and traditionalists alike.

“It’s just a little weird, I think,” Ma says with an audible grin. By that, he explains, he means that the program—which also includes Igor Stravinsky’s neoclassical Suite Italienne; Manuel de Falla’s flamenco-inflected 7 Canciones Populares; Olivier Messiaen’s luminous “Louange à l’éternité de Jésus”, from Quatuor Pour la Fin du Temps; and Cesar Franck’s Sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano—is meant to reflect the notion that “creativity happens around the edges..

“Think about it,” he says. “First, you have Stravinsky, a Russian living in Paris, going way back to [Giovanni Battista] Pergolesi’s time and trying to create a contemporary version of an Italian suite—and he did that for dance! Then you go to Villa-Lobos, and so much of Villa-Lobos, like his Bachianas series, is European-Brazilian. Piazzolla is European-Argentinian.…They show that what makes music American—and we’re talking South America, Central America, and much of North America—is very often an amalgam of cultures, different ratios of these cultures coming together and creating a new voice.

“Then, of course, we get to the mother ship from Spain. In De Falla you have the Moorish presence, the Arab presence in Andalusia, and then you have the Roma arriving and creating that meld that becomes flamenco. And the songs, De Falla’s songs, they’re pretty strong words. Beautiful music—but, boy, there’s a backbone there that’s amazing.”

Messiaen’s prisoner-of-war-camp classic, he continues, “tries to code a spirituality of love, and of life. And then the Franck, that was a wedding present! A wedding gift to [Eugène] Ysaÿe, the great Belgian violinist. And if you listen to its four movements, you really get the history of two people coming together.”

One could argue that Ma and Stott’s program is also a calculated progression from the simple lyricism of Stravinsky’s “Introduzione” to the celebratory dazzle of the Franck sonata. The cellist doesn’t deny that interpretation, but stresses that music is not primarily about technique.

“I’d like to think that the four strings on the cello are like my vocal cords, are attached to my vocal cords,” Ma says. “So with whatever you think should be reflected in the sound, in the musculature of how you pull the bow and how it comes out, there should be no impediment between the thought and the sound. That’s something people strive for, but you never want to hear ‘So-and-so’s a really good instrumentalist.’ What you want to hear is ‘Oh, that makes me think.’ ”

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