Yo-Yo Ma
YMCG Artistic Director

My dear young colleagues,

I’m writing to invite you to join me at the third Youth Music Culture Guangdong workshop in Guangzhou in January, 2019. This event has rapidly become a highlight of my year, giving me the unforgettable experience of teaching and working with talented young musicians from across China and oversea, and learning from them in turn.

Together with my friends Yu Long and Michael Stern, I conceived of YMCG as a 10-day exploration – a chance to play fun and challenging music, to learn from a first class faculty and from each other, and to stretch ourselves as musicians and artists. During the workshop, we will play in several different configurations – in chamber ensembles, in Silkroad “bands”, playing music each group arranges themselves, and as an orchestra. The emphasis is not only on technical proficiency, but also on how to be creative and flexible, and how to achieve things together that we cannot achieve alone.

As on any successful journey, having great guides will be essential, and we have put active coaching at the core of YMCG. Our talented faculty will visit all the chamber ensembles, Silkroad bands, and orchestra sections for in-depth coaching sessions. Extending one of last year’s innovations, we will also offer daily office hours in which I, along with all of our faculty members, will meet with you in small groups, often focused on specific technical questions. And, for the first time, we will offer a series of master classes – I will lead two myself, and faculty members will lead others.

At YMCG, you will work closely with a distinguished international faculty. Our Music Director, Michael Stern, is also the Music Director of the Kansas City Symphony and has conducted the orchestras of Atlanta, Chicago, Montreal, Seattle, Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and New York. Mike Block, a pioneering multi-style cellist and member of the Silkroad Ensemble, leads our Silkroad band stream, in which you will learn themes by ear and arrange your own new compositions based on them. They are joined by virtuoso clarinetist, composer and producer Kinan Azmeh, returning to YMCG. Mike Gordon comes to us from the Kansas City Symphony, where he has been Principal Flute for more than ten years, and Bill Williams returns to YMCG, with his long experience as Principal Trumpet of the San Francisco Symphony and in leading initiatives on music education at the New World Symphony. Also returning, for a third year as percussion faculty, is Joseph Gramley, a professor at the University of Michigan. He is a member of the Silkroad Ensemble and has performed with the Metropolitan Opera, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and the Mark Morris Dance Group, among many others.

Our string faculty this year includes the four members of the genre-defying string quartet Brooklyn Rider: Nicholas Cords (viola), Johnny Gandelsman (violin), Colin Jacobsen (violin), and Michael Nicolas (cello). In addition to his work with Brooklyn Rider, Nick is the co-Artistic Director of Silkroad and newly appointed faculty member at New England Conservatory. He has also been a soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Chicago Symphony. Johnny has premiered dozens of works by contemporary composers, and also recently released a beautiful account of Bach’s sonatas and partitas. As a producer his other credits include the Grammy-winning Silkroad recording Sing Me Home. Colin has appeared as soloist with the New York Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony, and is the co-founder and co-Artistic Director of the orchestral collective The Knights. As an active composer he draws from non-Western traditions as well as his own classical roots. And Michael is a former Associate Principal Cello with the Montreal Symphony who is also a member of the acclaimed International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE). In addition to his work with Brooklyn Rider, Michael is a founding member of the chamber group Third Sound.

They are joined by Hsin-Yun Huang, an acclaimed soloist and chamber musician and a viola professor at the Juilliard School and the Curtis School of Music, and by Liu Shaw Pong, a violinist, Erhu player, and composer whose multi-disciplinary work focuses on the ways in which culture builds community and heals divisions.

In addition to the chamber music repertoire and Silkroad band arrangements in which everyone will participate, this year’s YMCG will also incorporate two orchestral pieces: Jean Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony and Johannes Brahms’ Double Concerto for cello and violin, for which I will be one soloist.

I am very excited to share the experience of rehearsing and performing the Double Concerto by Brahms. This unique work was an effort to rekindle the intense creative friendship between Brahms and the violinist Joseph Joachim, which fractured when each took different sides in another friend’s dissolving marriage. The concerto gives voice to their conversation and imagines their reconciliation, the cello speaking for Brahms, the violin for Joachim. When we play this work together, we will become the two friends, reaching out to one another, experiencing their emotional ups and downs.

At first glance, the Sibelius Fifth Symphony seems to be worlds apart from the Brahms Double Concerto. However, I think it underlines eloquently the goals of our shared experience at YMCG. The two works have a very different sound world and a completely different musical vocabulary and yet are closely related. When we play the Brahms, we share an experience across centuries – we feel the burden, the weight, the cost, and the grace of friendship, emotions to which we can all relate. When we play the Sibelius symphony, we share the surge of human solidarity that united an entire people. Both masterpieces are exploring new ground of sonic and harmonic expression. Both are vivid examples of very personal self-expression, one describing the forgiveness and love of a personal friendship, the other describing a deep connection to nature and respect for culture and identity. And both are virtuosic examples of the power of great music to make us hear, see, and feel beyond ourselves.

The experience of studying and performing these works embodies the purpose of music and of culture: to connect us. Both the Brahms and Sibelius show us the organic building blocks of music. In the concerto, the toying motives around the intervals of a third and a fourth, up and down, tease us into the consideration of the special friendship that Brahms is painting for us. Sibelius similarly uses the intervals of a motive – a fifth, a sixth, a seventh, and back – to build the structure of a work that speaks to us from beginning to end so much so that he himself said that as he was writing the piece, he imagined entering into heaven, and the music greeting him there was the climax of this very symphony. Through these works – and through the experience of playing together in bands, ensembles, and as an orchestra – we will discover again one of the central lessons of music: how a unique musical expression, often private and intimate, can awaken in us a higher understanding which makes it possible for us to express our own selves and to understand others.

To me, this is why culture – and the roles we play as musicians – are both so important, and never more so than in these fractured times. Culture helps us to understand each other, no matter where we are from, and to imagine a better world together. I very much hope that you will join me and be part of this connection in January.

Looking forward to seeing you in Guangzhou!

With warmest wishes,

Yo-Yo Ma