The first time Yo-Yo Ma performed in Vancouver, it was a bit of a bust. It was 1974, the now-legendary cellist was just 18 years old, and ticket sales were slumping so badly the show was moved from the Queen Elizabeth Theatre to the much smaller Vancouver Playhouse. Even there, only half the seats were filled.
"I uncovered a review by the late Lloyd Dick that basically said, 'Hey, you cultured Vancouverites, where were you?'" Leila Getz, artistic director of the Vancouver Recital Society, recounts with a laugh. "'You missed the opportunity to hear the next great cellist.'"
The Vanouver Sun music critic's words could not have been more prophetic – and there is no longer any shortage of cultured Vancouverites lining up to see Mr. Ma, who has played for legions of royals and presidents, performed with the greatest symphony orchestras, racked up countless awards and accolades, become a United Nations Messenger of Peace and is one of the world's most widely-known classical musicians.
"But he has not changed at all since the day I first met him. And that is what is so utterly remarkable about him," Ms. Getz says. "He is just a genuinely warm, interested, nice person – the same Yo-Yo Ma that he was when he was 19 or 20."
At his upcoming Vancouver Recital Society concert, Mr. Ma will be joined by his long-time collaborator, British pianist Kathryn Stott. The pair – who have played together for more than 20 years – will perform works by composers including Igor Stravinsky, César Franck, Manuel de Falla and Argentine tango legend Astor Piazzolla.
So, what transformed Mr. Ma from teen talent to music icon? "It's much more than the sound he makes at the cello that makes him the legend that he is. Having the physical capability to draw wonderful sounds out of an instrument is only half of it," Ms. Getz says.
"The rest of it is the power of communication. That's what sets him apart. I'm sure there are other cellists who have a wonderful sound, but it's his aura and his magnetism on stage," she says. "If he played the kazoo, I think he'd still be a star."
Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott are at the Orpheum on Sunday (vanrecital.com).