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Famed Musician Yo Yo Ma Talks Gustavo Dudamel and What He Failed in College

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(Yo Yo Ma, photo courtesy of Todd Rosenberg)

You probably didn't know that not only is Yo Yo Ma one of the most pervasive, iconic musicians of our time, he's also hilarious. While tonight at the 10th anniversary of Walt Disney Concert Hall he played Bach and Tchaikovsky with the L.A. Philharmonic with complete precision and masterful technique, the 55 year old artist also a lyrical lighter side. People have a tendency to think musicians such as Mr. Ma are serious, nose to the grindstone diehard perfectionists, honing their craft. And while that's certainly true, these masters that have shaped the way we see, hear, and experience some of the greatest musical creations of our time like to have a little fun, just like the rest of us. After all, it can't all be pomp and circumstance 24/7.

Let's talk Gustavo Dudamel. What is the best thing about working with him?
That you have absolutely all of him. He is totally engaged, yet still aware of another layer of reality that's going on simultaneously. It's like those out of body experiences -- it's that third eye kind of thing -- and that is incredibly important in having an overview of the whole story. Gustavo has that in spades.

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(Gustavo Dudamel, image courtesy Los Angeles Philharmonic)

There are so many different components in putting a symphony together -- the artists, the compositions, the direction. To that point, what are the challenges of going from a small group, like The Silk Road Ensemble to performing with an entire symphony orchestra?
This is where a really wonderful conductor makes a huge difference, because it allows for a large group to feel really small. If I were to sit in the back section of the L.A. Phil, and I'm separated by 30 feet from the conductor, a really telekinetic conductor would be able to telegraph intentions from far away and be totally clear. A look, a gesture, has real consequence. The right conductor can magnify space and make an orchestra feel like it's a thousand people or two. The issues are the same regardless of the number.

Someone like Dudamel also makes the audience feel that way too.
Again, it's Dudamel's awareness of the space around him that makes him symphathetic to someone sitting 100 feet away, because he's been there. He can be empathetic to the physical reception and it's the control of that much greater space in the imagination and his control of time that can allow for this kind of manipulation of time and space with sound.

(Note: At this point, Ma -- while undoubtedly engaging through and through, realizes he's gone off on a bit of a tangent and checks himself).

Okay, okay, I'll stop there. But then again, I majored in bullshit in college. And I failed. (Laughs)

I was a double major: Art history and naps.
Well, that means you're very much in tune with your subconscious. Without awareness of your subconscious, your critical thinking will suffer. I went through music school by studying cafeteria, because we were told everything had to go through your gut. (Laughs)

One more question, and I know people have asked you this before, but...do you have a favorite piece that you love to play, classical or otherwise?
I don't because I'm old. (Laughs) The reason I say that is because I've fallen in love many times with different pieces of music. You add them all up and you go back to the old favorites all over again, based on memories. And then when you're playing a certain piece, you're in love right then and there with how terrific it sounds. Therefore, yes, there are many many pieces, or, the answer is I don't because I'm old.

Didn't you hear old is the new young?
Oh, that's music to my ears!