Sancho speaks!

Last night (May 7) we did Don Quixote with Yo-Yo Ma. Any performance of
Don Quixote is a Big Event in the life of a lead viola operator; doing
one with Yo-Yo as The Don ups the ante some.

I’ve done it twice before; once with then-principal cellist Ron Shawger
in 1989 and once with Lynn Harrell in 1997. So I knew the piece and had
some ideas about what to do with the viola part. But stuff like that
doesn’t get easier as one gets older.

I find it’s a surprisingly hard piece to prepare for, in part because nothing in the part is technically challenging. That doesn’t mean it can’t be screwed up really badly; it’s all too easy to screw up a slow C major scale in 1st position. What I ended up doing was focusing on being in shape. That too has its challenges, though. Getting in shape involves doing a lot of playing (and playing in orchestra never seems to count, for reasons I can’t fathom). Unfortunately there’s not much viola literature that I enjoy playing. So I ended up playing a lot of the Bach sonatas and partitas for solo violin, supplemented by Sevcik.

The solo Bach works are extraordinarily difficult on violin. On viola they’re just this side (or maybe the other side) of impossible; at least they are for me. There are two major problems. The first is that some of the chordal writing is physically unplayable (on a big viola, a real triad demands inhumanly large hands). The second is that the instrument, because of its size, simply can’t respond quickly enough to make the chordal writing sound clean.

But it’s wonderful stuff to practice slowly. Only a few of the chords are truly unplayable at any tempo. And these pieces have a curiously fractal quality; it doesn’t seem to matter much how slowly they’re played – they still sound like great music. There’s also a lot of variety in the kinds of challenges they pose; the fugues are like massive thickets of chords, while many of the dance movements are just fast single-line romps; which, when played slowly, become wonderful intonation exercises.

So what’s it like playing Don Quixote with Yo-Yo? Actually not as scary as one might think (in fact the scariest was the first run-through when he wasn’t there). He was incredibly supportive of what I was doing, for starters. I’m sure I’m not the first violist he’s had to put at ease. But he said the precise things that I needed to hear to help me relax and get in the spirit of the piece. And he was incredibly generous with bows and hugs. I did manage to turn down one bow – after he played the first movement of the Bach G major suite as an encore. But he got me upfront the next time he came out anyway. Some of my colleagues said I was turning bright red from all the attention, and I believe it.

Regardless of how well the viola part is played, there is ridiculously less to do than for the cellist. And, while I like to think I’m a good violist, I’m a long way from the equivalent of Yo-Yo. And the audience didn’t pay a lot of money to come hear me. But there I was upfront getting bows and hugs. Go figure.

I first heard Yo-Yo when he was 11 or so and played Saint-Saens with San Francisco. I got to know him a bit when I was in the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, where he came several times. On one of those trips I got to do the Brahms C minor piano quintet with him (and Pinky Zukerman and Misha Dichter), which would have been as big a thrill as this was had I not been so young and stupid at the time.

Even for a business filled with remarkable people, he’s a remarkable person. For one thing, he’s genuinely the kind of caring and generous person that most politicians work very hard to convince voters they are. He’s also very, very smart, and not just about the normal things but about his career and what he needed to do to survive and enjoy it. I think that accounts for the extraordinary range of music he’s tackled and the innovative ways in which he’s done so. He seems to have realized early on that simply playing the standard repertoire over and over again wasn’t going to be a very satisfying life – so he invented a completely new career track, which appears to have been not only very satisfying, and a real contribution to our field, but also quite profitable. It takes an unusual person to make that kind of contribution to an art form and to make it work well for themselves at the same time.

I’m sure that if Yo-Yo wasn’t such a warm and generous person and so smart about what he’s done with his life he’d still have had a major career. Talent like his is just too rare. But I don’t think he would have been the kind of iconic figure he’s become if he weren’t the kind of person he is. It really is enough to give one some hope for the future.

Oh, you want to know how it went? Yo-Yo sounded wonderful, of course. The orchestra sounded great too, especially given that we only had two rehearsals. It’s a favorite piece of our music director’s, and I’ve always liked his Strauss. And I felt pretty good about Sancho in the end. There were a couple of moments I wouldn’t have minded redoing for the tape, had we been making a recording. Sometime I will sit down and listen to the tape we did made for possible local broadcast and see what I think then. But I don’t think I’ll be embarrassed by it. The review in the local paper is here, and I’m mostly in agreement with it.


One Response to “Sancho speaks!”

  1. Patti Whaley Says:

    what a wonderful description! as lead viola operator in Symphony Silicon Valley (what arose from the ashes of the late San Jose Symphony) i almost got to do that this season, but it was scrubbed from the schedule due to being unable to get the desired cellist and conductor on the same dates. in the old san jose days when i was assistant, we did it with Paul Tortelier who was also a most wonderful Don (and my then-colleague Ken Harrison played the pants off Sancho). anyway, you’ve encapsulated this most significant of lead-viola moments just brilliantly, thanks for a most engaging read.

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