Arts & Culture Yo-yo Ma Teaches Master Class for Enthralled Tel Aviv Students

Kettle drums roll like thunder, a melodious clarinet solo gives way to an oboe’s clear call and Yo-Yo Ma looks at the Israeli student symphony seated around him and cannot stop beaming. “I am just overwhelmed by this orchestra,” said Ma on Tuesday as the Tel Aviv University music students finish playing an intricate Ernst Bloch piece. But in this master class he wasted no time pushing them to play even better.

“Make the rhythm count as a huge pulsation from the ground up,” he encouraged, enthusiastically bobbing on tiptoe.

One of the world’s top cellists, Ma has come to Israel to collect a $1 million Dan David Prize for his work preserving cultural heritage in the Silk Road Project. Through concerts, festivals and teaching the project explores the commonality in music found in societies stretching from Asia through the Mediterranean, the overland trade route that helped spread not just products but ideas and cultures across the globe for centuries.

The prize, which Ma will be contributing to the project, is one of three awarded annually by Dan David, a Jewish philanthropist. The prize honors innovative and interdisciplinary research that in some way improves society.

“It is particularly fitting to have this conversation in Israel, a country infused with ideas and cultures brought by emigrants from Europe, Asia, Africa, and even the Americas. It is a society of ancient traditions and modern ideas whose culture is based in both,” said Ma at the awards ceremony.

“Israel is a manifestation of the Silk Road and clearly illustrates that the more richly we understand the past, whether our own or our neighbors’, the more brilliantly we can imagine the future. Here, as around the world, we are all neighbors culturally, and it is our shared past that will inspire what is to come.”

To punctuate his point, Ma played two Bach pieces for the audience including the Sarabande from

Bach’s fifth suite, whose melodies originated in North Africa and then traveled to Spain and France before the German composer, inspired by the sound, composed his own piece based on it.

At the master class on Tuesday, Ma played the solo in Bloch’s Schelomo: Hebraic Rhapsody for Cello and Orchestra, accompanying the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music Orchestra.

He challenged the students to decipher what Bloch intended as he wrote the piece which is based on scenes from Ecclesiastics.

“How does it feel?” he asked.

A percussionist suggested that some of the most dramatic movements of the piece reflected King Solomon looking back on some of the most difficult moments in his life.

“His life is running through his head,” he said. Others offered their interpretation.

Ma seemed encouraged. “That’s deep thinking,” he comments, laughing.

Ma urged the students to tap into that internal pressure in the music to create a more emotional sound. He explained that to capture a feeling of anguish it is important that the short notes that follow longer notes need to be as sharp and articulate as possible.

The orchestra once again played through sections, their sound improving each time.

Alon Azizi, 27, a contrabass player, was thrilled to have Yo-Yo Ma as a teacher, even for just a few hours.

“I learned a lot about the musicality and the importance of focusing on details. He did a real deconstruction of the piece,” said Azizi. He was also very taken by Ma’s warmth and accessibility. “His playing is so alive. He has the enthusiasm of a boy almost, he so loves the music.”

After the class, clarinetist Danny Erdman, 22, cleaned the pads under the keys of his instrument and took in the moment.

“He makes you think not just about what is written in the notes but the overall feeling of the music. That is the fun part of music that we sometimes forget about, that sometimes gets lost,” he said.

Ma’s master class was one of several events he participated in at the Tel Aviv University campus where the award is headquartered.

Dan David, who has been awarding prizes since 2001, made his fortune from his invention of the automatic photo booth.

Other winners included two American cancer researchers, Dr. John Mendelsohn and Dr. Joseph Schlessinger, who were honored for their breakthroughs, as well as four journalists who have spoken out for press freedom, often at great personal risk — Magdi Allam of Italy, Monica Gonzalez of Chile, Adam Michnik of Poland and Goenawan Mohammed of Indonesia.

The Egyptian-born Allam, who is known for his outspoken criticism of Islamic extremism, received a standing ovation when he voiced his support for Israel proclaiming in Hebrew, “Am Yisrael Chai.”

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