Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the tragic beauty of Shostakovich.
Recently in London, I couldn't miss the opportunity to hear Yo-Yo Ma playing the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No.1, with the splendid London Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Michael Tilson-Thomas. Yo-Yo gave this work a tragic beauty of his own, with a personal intensity of expression in the harmonics that was breathtaking. I’ve painted many cellists (including Pierre Fournier, Mstislav Rostropovich, Paul Tortelier, Colin Carr), but there is something about Yo-Yo’s playing that is both awe-inspiring and heart-warming. You are in the presence of a master who draws you into his own interpretation.
My late wife Vivian King was a cellist and we had already collected most of Yo-Yo's recordings, including his brilliant and hilarious collaboration with singer Bobby McFerrin, and of course Yo-Yo’s moving recordings of the complete Bach Suites for cello. So when I made this painting in 1992, I had a wealth of musical inspiration at hand. But it's the Brahms and Beethoven Cello Sonatas, performed in a sublime partnership with pianist Emanuel Ax, that you see reflected in the serious blues, greens and greys floating in the background of this watercolour.
In this painting I had to leave room for the white heading of the poster announcing his Symphony Hall concert. But you always look for a way to turn restrictions into an opportunity, so I decided to use the obligatory low placement of Yo-Yo in the picture to show how totally grounded and balanced he is.
Yo-Yo Ma 1992, watercolour 84 x 56cm, Birmingham Symphony Hall Collection.
Balance is also the key to this composition. Yo-Yo often turns his head away from the cello, eyes closed, listening to the musical balance with orchestra as a whole. I have set his face at the intersection of two diagonals. After your gaze has travelled down from the top right-hand corner to his head, you can make a right-angled turn to follow his left hand as it skips and bounds down the fingerboard - almost playfully, although this is anything but child's play. His left hand is at the apex of a compositional pyramid. In fact everything in the painting is precisely balanced on a firm compositional structure, a basis for my freely painted impression of the vibrato and the agility of his fingering, the vigorous bowing, the concentration demanded and tensions involved in making this Stradivarius cello sing as Yo-Yo does.
Many writers have described the qualities of this great cellist. For years I've admired him as a personality, imaginative teacher and gifted musician, and I am still very fond of this visual ‘collaboration’ with him, over twenty years ago. So it was lovely to have such warm contact again, backstage at the London Barbican.