Almost exactly 100 years ago, during the aftermath of World War One, Sir Edward Elgar began work on his cello concerto. It wasn’t until Jacqueline du Pré recorded the work in the 1960s that it achieved any popularity. The cello played by Jackie for the recording was the Davidov Stradivarius, pictured on the cover below.
My parents owned this LP, and I listened to it, voraciously, throughout my childhood. I then studied the cello concerto as a set piece for my O-level music course in high school. I have loved the piece my whole life.
Today I played the organ for a very special wedding, and accompanied Yo-Yo Ma in selections by Schubert, Bach, Schumann, Couperin, Saint-Saëns, and Elgar. Yo-Yo now plays the exact cello used by Jackie – the Davidov – and this is the instrument he brought to the wedding.
Yesterday afternoon, we rehearsed together, in preparation for today. It was much more than a rehearsal. It was two hours of joyous music-making, thoughtful conversation, and enormous fun. Everything you read about Yo-Yo is true. He is humble, deeply thoughtful, self-effacing, and eager to communicate his passions and, genuinely, to hear yours. My wife, Kate, came along to the rehearsal. As soon as Yo-Yo saw her, he said, “You have to play the Davidov!” Jaws dropped. Tears flowed. Laughter and stories were shared. It is an astonishingly beautiful instrument with an extraordinary history.
Yo-Yo and I played through each piece. He turned me into a better accompanist with his playing. Most of the time he simply stood by the organ, reveling in our collaboration, as we shaped each phrase. As Kate observed, he was taking this every bit as seriously as any other performance.
Kate was checking for balance out in the room. When we were done, she casually asked Yo-Yo if he would play some of the Elgar concerto. “That would be crazy!” he said and, turning to me, asked, “Can you play the orchestra part?” I plonked down an octave E, and away we went. I was accompanying Yo-Yo Ma, playing the Elgar Cello Concerto, on the same cello that Jackie had played it, on the LP I had listened to throughout my childhood!
We made it through the 9/8 section of the first movement, and as my clinging to the memory of the score slowly disintegrated, we silently agreed that discretion was the better part of valor. It was an incredible moment, and the tears in our eyes said everything that needed to be said. It was time for Kate to play again.
There is so much to be absorbed from a moment like this. I will treasure this busy weekend for ever. A master musician brought out the best in us. He followed as much as he led. He listened as much as he spoke. He eschewed any shred of self-importance, and created an atmosphere of mutual admiration and ease, in which we could all be at our very best. He cared generously and genuinely.
When Yo-Yo arrived for the wedding this afternoon, we asked how each other’s evenings had been. Then, immediately, he enquired, “How’s Kate? And how’s Eliot…?”