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Yo-Yo Ma as teacher: 'It was surreal'

Yo-Yo Ma
Los Angeles Times

By Yvonne Villarreal

He's a cello master. A classical impresario. A 15-time Grammy winner. But on Tuesday morning, he was simply the nutty music professor.

World-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma led three UC Santa Barbara students in a master class at the Lobero Theatre in downtown Santa Barbara. The free event, co-presented by UCSB Arts & Lectures and the UCSB Department of Music, featured works by Bach and Beethoven.

"It was surreal," said cellist Kathryn Mendenhall, who performed Beethoven's Sonata no. 4 in C Major, Op. 102, no. 1 along with pianist Christopher Davis.  "I thought, ‘Oh, that's Yo-Yo Ma I'm playing for.' And ‘Oh, he's actually talking to me?' His albums were the first ones my parents bought me as a kid.  So, yeah ... it was just surreal."

The classical heavyweight, whose discography includes more than 75 albums, shared some useful tidbits with the musicians: "You need to be an equal and not think of [Beethoven] as a genius ... you want to go one-on-one with his imagination." He suggested techniques -- count the beats out loud -- to help improve their performance.  At times, when the musicians played, Ma would talk to them -- "be more fluid" or "not so staccato" -- staying close, tapping his foot and swaying his hands with the music.

"He really reminded me that it's important to convey an idea rather than play all the notes perfectly," said Davis, 27.

But this was no stiff music lesson.  A jovial Ma had the nearly 600 onlookers chuckling with his humorous teaching style. At one point he asked one of the musicians to "look at him longingly" when he played.

Ma's comedic bits seemed to be a welcome teaching device for the nervous students.

 "He has a remarkable ability to put you at ease," said violist Jacob Adams, 28, who performed Bach's Suite No. 3 in C Major -- a piece originally played by the cello. "I was very nervous. I mean, he's an institution. But he makes you comfortable and gives you the space to express yourself. It's very easy to let the nerves take over when you're standing next to a big-name person like him, but he's so down to earth. And he definitely knows what he's talking about."

Indeed. Ma, a member of the American Classical Music Hall of Fame, began playing cello when he was 4. He  studied at the Julliard School of Music with Leonard Rose and later graduated from Harvard. He also plays the piano, viola and violin.

The master class wrapped up Ma's mini-tour in the area.  He performed an intimate solo recital Monday night at the Granada, featuring Bach's Unaccompanied Cello Suites 2, 3 & 6.