Behind the scenes: Yo-Yo Ma, U-M students, and Kayhan Kalhor collaborate on new composition

In a weeklong residency, U-M students joined the Orchestra of the Americas, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and composer Kayhan Kalhor to preview a new piece Kalhor had written with Ma in mind.
This story is part of a series about arts and culture in Washtenaw County. It is made possible by the Ann Arbor Art Center, the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, Destination Ann Arbor, Larry and Lucie Nisson, and the University Musical Society.

Midway through rehearsals in Ann Arbor for the first public performance of a double concerto written by renowned composer Kayhan Kalhor for cello legend Yo-Yo Ma, conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto asks his musicians, "Do you think Al Pacino is fearing anything when he is acting? Did you see 'Godfather II'?"

"If I have one suggestion," Prieto says, "it's getting rid of fear."

Prieto is conductor and music director of the Orchestra of the Americas (OA), which made its Ann Arbor debut with a week-long residency in Ann Arbor and a June 11 performance at Hill Auditorium, hosted by the University Musical Society (UMS). The OA was joined by students from both the University of Michigan (U-M) and Mexico's Escuela Superior de Musica y Danza Monterrey, as well as Kalhor and Ma themselves.

For a week before the June 11 performance, the OA workshopped and rehearsed Kalhor's new composition, "Venus in the Mirror," a double concerto for cello and kamancheh (a long-necked bowed instrument native to Persian music), which Kalhor wrote expressly with Ma in mind. The Ann Arbor concert served as a preview of the composition's official world premiere at the Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, Germany next year.
"It's a brand-new piece," says Laika Choi, a rising fifth-year U-M student with a major in Percussion Performance, who played percussion with the ensemble. "Nobody heard it before. Nobody played it before."
Doug CoombeUniversity of Michigan Percussion Performance student Laika Choi.
 In rehearsal, Prieto told the performers to "practice, practice, practice — and little by little, get rid of fear."
It was easy to see why the musicians might experience fear: aside from being the first to play — and even to hear — Kalhor's new composition, they had been joined for the rehearsal by both Kalhor and Ma, who sat side by side center-stage at Hill Auditorium.
"If you feel like doing something, do it," Prieto says. "That little glissando you played earlier" — here he gestures at a musician — "that made my day."
"I have never gotten mad at someone for being themselves. Have you?" he says, and here he turns to Ma, who is sitting, cello in hand, just a few feet away.
Ma shakes his head resignedly. "All the time," he says, to laughter.
 Mariangela QuirogaYo-Yo Ma with students from Escuela Superior de Musica y Danza Monterrey at Hill Auditorium.
The moment seemed emblematic of an intensive, tightly scheduled, week-long, collaborative, and cross-cultural process.
As the laughter dies down, Ma urges the young musicians: "Make sure you can separate between what's urgent and what's important."
Ma played a pivotal role in bringing both the OA and Prieto, and Kalhor and his new composition, to Ann Arbor.
UMS Marketing and Media Relations Manager Lilian Varner cites UMS' "long-standing relationship" with Ma. UMS has hosted Ma in Ann Arbor multiple times in recent decades. Ma, she says, "just knew that Ann Arbor was the place — we were equipped to make the project happen."
"In nearly every single one of [Ma's] projects, there's this thread of cultural exchange," Varner adds, referring to "this shared identity that we can all understand through music."
 Doug Coombe"Venus in the Mirror" rehearsals at Hill Auditorium.
All week, U-M students engaged with their OA counterparts in rehearsals, workshops, and social events.
With such a short time span in which to "make this happen," says Choi, the U-M percussionist, "each day has been very intentional, very intense." 

"But within [that] intensity," she adds, the week had afforded the musicians an excellent opportunity to "learn about each other and learn from each other."
"I'm not worried about the audience," Prieto tells his musicians in rehearsal. "I'm worried about you. The audience — bless their hearts — they're probably wondering what's happening with my fingers."
Prieto seems to have a remarkable rapport with the bilingual orchestra, seamlessly answering questions and counting off bars in both English and Spanish. As they play through "Venus in the Mirror," Prieto checks in with Kalhor often to make sure they've captured the right tempo and rhythm. 
 Mariangela QuirogaKayhan Kalhor and Yo-Yo Ma performing "Venus in the Mirror" at Hill Auditorium.
"Can you play some of this music so we can see how the rhythm goes?" Prieto says. At this stage, the composition is like a living thing: still growing, still casting off unneeded bits and pieces.
Kalhor picks up his instrument and plays briefly. He learned to play the kamancheh as a young boy and refers to his instrument as an "essential extension" of himself.
When Kalhor finishes, Prieto turns to the orchestra. "This is un-notate-able music," he says. "The way [Kalhor] plays, there are no bars."
This is a point Prieto returns to again and again: the composition couldn't be contained by bars or measures, and focusing too much on signposts like these would lead the musicians astray. (Later, asked about this emphasis on the "un-notate-able," Kalhor says, "Writing [music] down is just to remind [you] what you play[ed] and then to avoid chaos." Improvisation, on the other hand, is a "natural part of music.")
"Let's get a rhythm that sounds more natural," Prieto tells the musicians.
 Doug Coombe"Venus in the Mirror" rehearsals at Hill Auditorium.
Once again, the orchestra joins in together — but then there is a pause in the playing.
"Sorry," Ma says. "I messed up."
There is laughter as the tension dissipates, and then Prieto tells Kalhor, "Give me your ideal tempo."
Kalhor snaps out a beat with his fingers and lightly slaps his foot against the stage. When he speaks, his voice is so low and soft that it's hard to make out the words.
"What he just told me," Prieto tells the orchestra, "is … when the strings have the melody, go crazy. So" – he gestures to the string section — "go crazy," and the students respond with a few quick grins.
"The notes swim between bars"
The sense of intimacy between Kalhor and Ma is palpable in the rehearsal: they share a music stand and, as they progress, Kalhor flips the pages of the score; Ma nods emphatically. At one point, Ma whispers something to Kalhor, and Kalhor lays a hand on his shoulder as he leans in to listen.

In a phone call with Concentrate, Kalhor says "Venus in the Mirror" is, "in a way, [a] tribute to a quarter-century [of] friendship with Yo-Yo Ma."
The two met in 1999 and have collaborated frequently since then, including as a part of Ma's Silk Road Ensemble, for which Kalhor was commissioned to write a piece in the early 2000s.
"One thing led to another, and we got involved in other projects," Kalhor says. But, he adds, "This is not just a working relationship. … A really close friendship [also] developed out of that."
Kalhor, who is of Kurdish descent, was born in Iran. At 17, with the Iranian Revolution underway, his parents encouraged him to flee, and he walked 2,500 miles to Italy with only a backpack and kamancheh. (Kalhor's parents and brother, who stayed behind, were eventually killed in an Iraqi missile strike.)
 Eric BronsonKayhan Kalhor and Carlos Miguel Prieto at a UMS performance of "Venus in the Mirror" at Hill Auditorium.
His relationship with Ma, Kalhor says, is marked by "a lot of warmth and closeness and spirituality."
Without those elements, he goes on, "playing a piece of music, per se, [is] not going to be possible — or it [won't] sound the way it should."
"When you hear a piece of music — if you're a serious music listener — you should try to go beyond that and see why that music was created [and] who played it first," Kalhor says. "What is the function of that? What is [it] the composer wants to say? You know, there is a lot of information in one piece of music. [It] is not just what you hear."
That deep-rooted understanding of music made Ma the perfect collaborator for this project, Kalhor says.
"He tries to go beyond the piece of music — and then beyond how to play it," Kalhor says. "He's a humanitarian; he actually sees people and reasons and philosophy behind music. And he's a very spiritual person. … I have been trying to see music and art in the same way, so this has brought us closer together, I think."
 Doug CoombeCarlos Miguel Prieto leading a rehearsal of "Venus in the Mirror" at Hill Auditorium.
"I didn't want this to be a typical concerto," Kalhor says of "Venus in the Mirror." "Usually people go for a lot of virtuosity, a lot of difficult passages for the instruments, and it's about shining and all this stuff" — showing off, even.
Kalhor wanted to take the opposite approach. "I wanted some tranquility and some simplicity," he says.
These are qualities that are often undervalued, Kalhor adds, both in concertos and in musicians themselves. He says he wrote the music with Ma in mind, wanting to harness the "beautiful sound … he makes when he plays."
"It's all about the sound — it's not about complexity or virtuosity," Kalhor says.
The composition itself is deceptively simple: dreamy, atmospheric, marked by long, sustained notes traded between Ma's cello and Kalhor's kamancheh. The kamancheh's duskier tones seem to blend with the cello's rich lines until they become nearly indistinguishable.
 Doug Coombe"Venus in the Mirror" rehearsals at Hill Auditorium.
"After the teenage years, when you try to play the most difficult things, my preoccupation as a musician was sound," Kalhor says. "I'm very, very fascinated with sound. A simple long note can do a lot that [a] really, really fast passage with a lot of notes cannot do."
He says Ma "understands that philosophy, so we can complement each other in creating that sound pool."
"Venus in the Mirror," Kalhor adds, is "not a really, really difficult piece to play, but in a way, it's so simple that it becomes difficult."
"To me," Kalhor says, Ma's talent is centered in "his sound — and not just fast passages that everybody wants to make him play — and [that] he plays beautifully, … but he's beyond that. He doesn't have anything to prove anymore."
Kalhor, who has spent his life steeped in traditional Persian music, says, "Coming from a musical culture that's mostly relying on improvisation, I try to get a lot of that in my written music. When I write for others — for a quartet … or an orchestra — I try to give everybody … room to be swimming around and fluent in it. For this piece, there is a lot of room to do that, because the solo instruments have dialogue, and that could go back and forth, and we could take our time."
 Doug Coombe"Venus in the Mirror" rehearsals at Hill Auditorium.
"If the conductor fully understands that, as our conductor does," Kalhor says, "he helps the orchestral players to understand, [too,] and not just read the notes, [but] try to participate in that interaction and that fluidity … to make the notes swim between bars and [other] notes."
"I think it is nice to ask people to be themselves, not to be what you want," Kalhor adds, "… and it's nice to give the orchestral players some room, as well, to be themselves."
"Each player brings their own personal touch in what they play, whether it's a wind instrument or string instrument, and that's the beauty of it. You can play a piece [such] that nobody else plays it like you, or [in a way it hasn't] been played like that before."
Just before the orchestra pauses its rehearsal for a short break, Prieto asks Kalhor about the inspiration for the composition.
"How precious life is," Kalhor says. "We do everything for life. Life is active, fast, maybe brutal — but we have to do it."
"I hope you already had dinner"
On the night of the performance, the OA presented audience members with an impressive sight: an orchestra made up of more than 80 onstage musicians, including about 20 U-M students, as well as a grand piano, two different xylophones, an extensive horn section, and an even more extensive string section.
The orchestra opened with "Téenek — Invenciones de Territorio," by Gabriela Ortiz, who took the title for her piece from the Mayan language spoken in east-central Mexico. It's an inspired performance — as sprightly as the chittering of morning birds — but the audience is waiting for its stars to join the stage, and they only do so once "Téenek" has ended.
Then, as the younger musicians rearrange the stage, Ma and Kalhor emerge from the wings to riotous applause.
"Venus in the Mirror" begins with a haziness like gold dust and just the slightest discordant pinch. The melody radiates around three descending notes with a kind of pleading liquid richness.
Kalhor and Ma seem to hand these phrases back and forth between themselves, wordlessly, the orchestra behind them building towards a greater urgency as the notes bend and the piece twists toward crescendo.
Doug CoombeCarlos Miguel Prieto leading a rehearsal of "Venus in the Mirror" at Hill Auditorium. 
If there is a single word to describe this concerto, it is yearning. The curling sound unfurls first from Ma's cello and then from Kalhor's kamancheh, like scarves or smoke — the piece's only hint of extravagance.
At times, they seem to play twinned melodic lines, like a second pencil overlaying the charcoal line of a first. These notes seem neither to end nor begin, but to gradually brighten.
"Music is a language that people can understand no matter what," Choi says. "Each rehearsal, each performance, each interaction — every moment that happens within this event is never going to happen again. So it is unique. It is special."
Choi says she felt "very fortunate" and "very honored" to participate in the performance.
"It's meaningful not only for the soloist and composer to [perform a composition for the first time,] but it is meaningful for us to be the first ones to play it, [the] first ones to present [it] to the audience," she says.
 Doug Coombe"Venus in the Mirror" rehearsals at Hill Auditorium.
Choi says the experience was "like a little gem that I can always go back to in the future."
After an intermission, Kalhor and Ma disappear from the stage as the OA goes on to perform selections from Italian composer Ottorino Respighi's "Roman Festivals" and "The Pines of Rome."
"I hope you already had dinner," Prieto teases the audience.
Onstage, he is a dynamic figure: leaping, stomping his feet, directing the audience to stomp their own feet.
"I am sorry for the length of the concert," he says at one point, "but [the OA has] not played together for six years."
 Doug CoombeCarlos Miguel Prieto leading a rehearsal of "Venus in the Mirror" at Hill Auditorium.
The evening ends with a sense of joy and release — and relief.
Choi says she can barely begin to quantify what she learned from Kalhor and Ma over the last week, from "how they present themselves, [and] what kind of nuance they put into the music, [to] how they interpret things."
"We never played with them before," she says. "We never played with each other before, until this event. So we learn how other [musicians] adapt [to each other] … and through that experience, we make music together."
Earlier, Kalhor had said, "I don't remember any minutes of my life that I haven't been with my instrument — even when I'm traveling. When I'm flying, the instrument is with me — [or] when I'm driving. In my hotel room, onstage, after [the] stage…"
He drifts off.
"People come and go, perhaps, but music stays."

Natalia Holtzman is a freelance writer based in Ann Arbor. Her work has appeared in publications such as the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Literary Hub, The Millions, and others.

Photos by Doug Coombe.
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