STRING OF Good Fortune


It was finally here, the day Colin Stokes would rehearse with Yo-Yo Ma.

In a third-floor walk-up on Mount Vernon Place, the high school student sat barefoot, as he did every morning, practicing scales on his cello. Later he would lace up his wingtips, shined for the first time, straighten his favorite Jerry Garcia tie and head south toward Bethesda to rehearse with the planet's most acclaimed cellist, a man Colin had admired almost as long as he had been playing the instrument. Signs of his devotion were scattered around the apartment: the Ma poster on the wall, the thick stack of CDs, the book My Son, Yo-Yo by Marina Ma.

Most important, however, was Colin's genuine Ma artifact: a signed program from the cellist's concert in Founders Hall, Hershey, Pa., on May 14, 1997.

Colin was 9 years old. He sat in Row P, 008, Orchestra right.

Today he would share the stage with Ma during the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's rehearsal for the opening of the Music Center at Strathmore. There would also be six other cellists, three of whom were high school students who had competed with him for the honor of playing with the Grammy Award-winning cellist.

A lot had happened since Colin first saw Ma. First, he found a great teacher, Troy Stuart. He had become completely serious about the cello. And as his lessons and musical needs increased, his family had decided he should leave high school in his hometown of Gettysburg, Pa., to study at the Baltimore School for the Arts, where Stuart teaches.

His parents rented an apartment on Mount Vernon Place and took turns supervising him. On this auspicious day, Feb. 3, Harry Stokes was on deck to drive Colin to Strathmore.

Colin felt ready. He had practiced the piece with his fellow students and the BSO cellists who would fill out the eight-musician ensemble. He had survived his first rehearsal under the intimidating baton of BSO music director Yuri Temirkanov. He had thoroughly memorized the music: Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5 by Heitor Villa-Lobos.

Now it was a matter of finding its soul and the wings of performance.

"You want the performance to be easy - and it is if you've practiced," Colin said, somewhat hopefully. "If you're not prepared enough, it feels like you're not being sincere. ... Yo-Yo plays so naturally that it feels like something he doesn't work at. It doesn't feel like he's playing the cello. It's just music.

"He thinks the music you play is directly representative of who you are. That the music is what you are as opposed to something you do."

Six feet tall, the young musician is as slender and graceful as his cello's bow. His curly dark hair, chiseled face and large green eyes lend a soulful appearance. It's easy to believe him when he says he is often swallowed up by his music.

A Post-it note on the door reads LUNCH because he so regularly forgets to take it. There are just so many things to distract him - like midterm exams, audition tapes and the fact that he and Ma share the same birthday. Both musicians were born Oct. 7. This year, Ma will be 50 and Colin will be 18.

Slightly preoccupied, Colin asked his dad to help clean a fresh coffee spill off his Jerry Garcia tie ("I used to be a complete Dead-head"), then carefully slipped the magenta tie-dyed T-shirt he made with his girlfriend over his cello to keep it safe from scratches. After placing the instrument carefully in its case, he double-checked his basic equipment: his "trademark" woven belt from Honduras that used to belong to his older brother, his wallet, his phone, his keys, his music.

Once again, lunch was left behind.

Meeting his idol

Yo-Yo Ma stood at the back of the concert hall, listening to Temirkanov rehearse as various BSO staff members whispered welcomes. He smiled and shook hands, displaying all the graciousness and good will for which he's also famous. As the music from Tchaikovsky's "The Waltz of the Flowers" flooded the hall, the cellist persuaded a BSO publicist to dance in the aisle with him.

Colin Stokes, who was also listening to the orchestra, tried not to stare: In less than an hour, he would have this man as a partner.

As it turned out, he met him even sooner. When the high school students left the hall to warm up, they ran right into Ma. And, of course, he stopped to chat. He had read about each one of them: 15-year-old Jeffrey Chu of Gaithersburg; 16-year-old Rachel Gawell of Arnold; 13-year-old Tianheng "Tim" Wang of Boyds; and 17-year-old Colin.

He shook Colin's hand. "We've got something in common," he told him, nodding at the shoulder straps attached to the student's cello case.

"I know!" Colin said. "We've got the same birthday!"

"Are you serious? That's great!"

After Ma had met everyone, he asked for their opinions of the Villa-Lobos piece. And he wanted to know what it was like to work with Janice Chandler-Eteme, a soprano he said he was eager to meet.

He also told them to relax.

"Remember to enjoy this," he said. "Have fun. ... The most important thing about ensemble is comfort. Just be comfortable. And I don't know the second movement of this piece so well, so you've got to help me out."

Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5, written for soprano and eight cellos, is a haunting piece that pays tribute to the music of Bach as well as to the folk music of the composer's native Brazil. Part of what the soprano sings is vocalize, a melody sung by humming or using a neutral syllable or vowel.

In rehearsal, Chandler-Eteme's rich voice would first trickle, then pour out in a torrent of emotion, the cellos sometimes paddling hard to keep pace. When Temirkanov was finished rehearsing, Ma stayed to work with the ensemble a bit longer. He appeared to relish the opportunity.

"There's nothing more exciting than meeting people who are doing something for the first time," he had said earlier in an interview. "The light in their eyes, it's a moment that gets carved into your memory. It's not just that we're doing a piece together, but it's the generational transfer of things that I get so energized by. I think it's so exciting to be involved in that kind of flow. [The students'] energy and their willingness ... to take the leap is something we can all work from."

They did. After trying a different seating arrangement and reviewing key measures, the sound improved. They had rehearsed the piece for nearly an hour - a privilege Colin didn't anticipate.

Feeling 'the groove'

"Yo-Yo was really listening in a way that he could think of one thing that each of us could go away with," the teenager said. "I think the piece went from being notes at the beginning of rehearsal to really being music at the end. ... He said that instead of feeling like you have to play every note on the page, it's more important to phrase with the group and feel like you're part of the ensemble.

"The most profound thing he got us to do was to feel the groove. He was talking about how bands really get a groove - that's what makes the people in the audience feel the music. He said we need to do that in classical music, too."

Once felt, always remembered.

A long time ago, when he was 4, Colin heard his older sister practice violin with a friend. The slightly out-of-tune sound held a human quality he had never heard in music. Later, listening to the car radio with his mother, he discovered another instrument. This one had a low voice, just like he did, and it seemed to express something he wanted to say.

Somewhere in the middle of his first time playing with Yo-Yo Ma, Colin Stokes passed another threshold. He felt a big, powerful sound coming from his own cello - and realized he'd never dreamed he could make music so well with others.

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