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Yo-Yo Ma and the Acid-Free Box

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books and culture

Yo-Yo Ma and the Acid-Free Box

How my parents commissioned a work of art that lives on July 17, 2020
Arts and Culture

“What should we do for our anniversary?” my dad asked my mom. They were driving on the thruway, listening to the radio. A few years before, in an uncharacteristic burst of extravagance, he’d bought her a fur, a sure sign to me that they were running out of ideas. They had been married 40 years. It was 1987.

The music on the radio ended. “That was the Concerto in E-flat, Dumbarton Oaks, by Igor Stravinsky, commissioned by Mr. Robert Woods Bliss in honor of his wife’s 60th birthday,” the announcer said.

“That’s it!” my mom, then 60 herself, exclaimed. “I want to commission a cello concerto for Yo-Yo Ma.”

Anyone who knew her well or had ever subscribed to one of her concert series could tell you that Lillian Barbash—director of the Islip Arts Council and struggling pianist of my youth—was no great fan of contemporary classical music. In fact, she had spent most of her life avoiding it—changing the channel when it came on the radio, turning down requests from her artists to perform it, and refusing to buy a recording of anything more dissonant than Bartók.

As a teenager, I knew that the way to torture my mom, or at least drive her out of my room, was to put on an LP, not of Jimmy Hendrix or Alice Cooper, but of Arnold Schoenberg or one of his disciples. Arriving in a concert hall and seeing an unfamiliar work listed in the program next to the word “premiere,” my mom would turn to my dad and say, “I hope it’s not too long.”

But now, hearing about Mrs. Bliss, she returned to a childhood fantasy of dukes and countesses and patrons of the arts. Suddenly, this child of the Great Depression, of modest good taste and origins, circumspect by nature, suspicious of showboats and grand gestures, was ready to spend—as it turned out—$40,000 for 18 minutes’ worth of music, the sort that she had resolutely shunned for half a century. Surely, this was love at the height of its powers.

“What composer do you want?” Yo-Yo asked, a few months later.

Perhaps because Yo-Yo had gone to college with my sisters, both amateur string players, or perhaps because my mom was so artless, she told him the truth: “I don’t know—they’re all dead,” she said. “You choose.”

The cellist suggested his mentor at Harvard, Leon Kirchner, a student of Schoenberg. “I’ve been wanting him to write me a piece for years,” Yo-Yo said.

“That would be wonderful,” my mom replied. My dad, Murray, a residential developer who dreamt of playing Mozart on the clarinet, agreed.

My parents had never heard or owned any of Kirchner’s music—he wasn’t dead. My sisters knew of him but hadn’t taken his courses in college. Mom went out and bought a CD of his music. “Uh-oh,” she said, after listening for a while. Though not as unrelievedly dissonant as many of his contemporaries, Kirchner, who had won a Pulitzer Prize, isn’t what you would call easy listening. Mom resolved to “get used to him.”

Devoted to Kirchner as he was, Yo-Yo warned my parents of the risk they were taking. “You know,” he said, “some of these commissions get played once and never again. Some of them never get played at all. Some of them are terrible.”

Mom was unmoved. “I’ll have the score to give to my children,” she said.

As for my dad, whose only regret in life was that he wasn’t born a musician, and whose response to modern music was less visceral than hers—Dad’s guiding principle was: So long as Lil’s happy, I’m happy. Big-hearted, eager, gregarious, fascinated by the world of music, relaxed and charmed among Yo-Yo and his friends—he was thrilled at the notion that two music lovers with no musical talent could help create a product they’d enjoyed all their lives.

Commissions aren’t simple matters, and in the end, it was my older sister, Cathy, the thorough one in the family, who made it happen. Cathy was then orchestra manager of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and with her support, the orchestra agreed to accept my parents’ commission and perform the premier with Yo-Yo.

For Kirchner, the timing was good; he had never written a work for cello and orchestra. Other cellists had asked him to write concertos, but he always declined, saying that he wasn’t ready. “It’s a difficult medium because the cello is essentially a bass instrument, and it’s usually covered by the orchestra,” Kirchner told me. He also worked slowly—he often avoided commissions because he didn’t like to feel rushed. Approached by his star pupil, however, and assured that my parents were in no great hurry—their 40th anniversary had passed—he accepted.

The 41st anniversary passed, too, and then the 42nd, each producing the obligatory gifts that fade with memory. Finally, the premiere was scheduled. In October 1992, two months before my parents’ 45th anniversary, guest conductor David Zinman would lead Yo-Yo and the Philadelphia Orchestra in a series of four performances at the Academy of Music in downtown Philadelphia. My parents would invite their friends and family, and my wife and I would travel from Atlanta, where we then lived. A dinner celebration would follow the concert.

As the date neared, though, there was one problem. The piece wasn’t nearly finished. That summer, Yo-Yo invited Kirchner and his wife and Zinman to join him at his house in Tanglewood so that they could hasten the Muse along. “Leon played the sketches through for us, trying to get us to understand what the piece was,” Zinman recalled. “He sang and he played and he talked. It was a little chaotic.” At one point, Yo-Yo’s wife, Jill, went at Kirchner with a rolling pin.

“It was like grownup camp,” Yo-Yo said. “You never quite know where inspiration comes from, but the stick and the carrot were there. The stick was the rolling pin. The carrot was usually a bottle of single malt.”

Through the summer, Zinman received bits of the score at a time. “It was actually very scary because the piece really wasn’t completed until the last minute,” he said. “I didn’t get the whole score until a month before we played it. And then still things were being changed, and wrong notes being found, and many things were missing that had to be put in. And I thought, ‘My God, will the orchestra parts be legible? Will we be able to learn it in such a short time?’”

Serious disputes arose with the publisher, G. Schirmer Inc., who had fought with Kirchner over broken deadlines before and who threatened never to work with him again. Zinman and Yo-Yo offered to donate their artist fees to pay for the late, rushed copying of parts. In the end, the copier’s fee—$25,000—exceeded the composer’s fee: $15,000.

Yo-Yo Ma (Photo: Larry French/Getty Images for SiriusXM)

“Without perseverance, the whole thing could have fallen apart,” Zinman said. “But I felt strongly, from the first time I heard Leon play the sketches, that this is a great masterpiece, and that it would be senseless to give up on it. And eventually I was proven right.”

Music for Cello and Orchestra, as my parents’ anniversary piece is called, didn’t die after its Philadelphia debut. Praised by the critics, it became a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Crucial to its future, it found a powerful champion in Yo-Yo, who has performed it with major symphonies in London, New York and Cleveland, and who recorded it with Zinman and the Philadelphia Orchestra for the CD, Yo-Yo Premieres.

The recording sessions were delayed by a monstrous blizzard, which trapped my parents in a kind of hotel paradise with their beloved musicians. The storm was like an anniversary present from heaven. More snow fell on Philadelphia on January 7, 1996, than on any other day that century. Forty-nine years earlier, on December 26, the famous Blizzard of ’47 dropped 25 inches of snow on Manhattan, stranding two of my aunts overnight in the subway. My parents were married the next day.

Like the weather, Music for Cello and Orchestra is said to be about struggle and release. The piece begins with an off-putting ruckus, the kinds of sounds that had held my parents and so many others at bay for most of their lives. But then, as if rediscovering the unabashed beauty of the past, Kirchner allows himself to sing.

“The piece is a lot about Leon’s struggle with coming to terms with tonality,” Zinman said. “It’s also the kind of struggle that an older person has when he realizes that his time is limited. It’s a kind of farewell.”

“It became a very, very important work for me,” Kirchner recalled. “It was a subconscious thing—I wanted to be 19 again and start over. My style didn’t change, but it became more inclusive. Toward the end of the work, there actually is the appearance of something like a Bach chorale, swimming through the time-space of Mahler or Strauss.”

Alas, I am no great judge of contemporary classical music, and will never listen with the ears of maestros Zinman, Kirchner, or Ma. Nevertheless, I can say, with certainty, that Music for Cello and Orchestra is miraculous in at least one respect: it’s the first modern work that my mom and dad listened to regularly and attentively and that they seemed to enjoy.

Anyone looking to start a quarrel between them need only ask whether their reaction was due more to the ecstatic, romantic, Mahler-esque nature of the work or to the fact that they paid for it, and were so invested in its progress. “Your mother was going to love this piece no matter what,” my dad would say with a mischievous grin, prompting her to respond with a concise barnyard epithet.

Perhaps my parents only thought that they didn’t like modern music, and finally allowed themselves to get close enough to a great work to discover that they did. Perhaps, like a young student learning French, they had their ears transformed.

They traveled to most of the performances, sat through most of the rehearsals, and attended all the recording sessions. They listened to the piece in the car, bought 50 copies of Yo-Yo Premieres to give to friends, and befriended Kirchner, an erudite professor who told wandering, allusive stories. They kept a copy of his score in a box made of acid-free paper.

“It doesn’t matter how sophisticated you are—what matters is feeling, and on that score your parents are ahead of some of the world’s great virtuosos,” Kirchner said.

At the premiere in Philadelphia, Zinman introduced the piece by observing that its creation had much to do with love. “Concerto for Lovebirds,” one headline read. “The truth is, every piece has to do with love,” Kirchner replied.

They’re all gone now—my mom, my dad, and Leon Kirchner. My mom was the last to go, on July 4. “I love the idea of it outliving us,” she had said, long before Music for Cello and Orchestra had even been written. Never one to archive her own doings as an arts presenter, she filled her acid-free box close to overflowing with programs and reviews of its performances. In a fairytale turn of fate, she lived to see her own grandson grow up to be a world-class musician and perform with Yo-Yo on The Late Show. “Long Island’s First Lady of the Arts,” her admirers called her.

Of course, I’m proud of what my parents did. A share of immortality, if that is what art confers, is surely theirs. But at least one clear-eyed, anxious member of the family has never been convinced. One night at bedtime, long ago, my son, the future musician, then eight, asked how old I thought he would be when his grandparents died. He was on the verge of tears.

“Oh, you’ll probably be at least 30,” I said optimistically.

“Are they sad?” he asked. “Will you be sad?”

We were lying in his bed in the dark, listening to Beethoven. “Not so sad. I’ll have you,” I said.

“But what will they have?” he asked, the tears at last flowing.

“Oh, they’ll have a lot,” I said vaguely—not sure what they would have, really, or what I should say.

“So, you really don’t think they’re sad?”

The music picked up speed. I thought of my mom’s acid-free box and the memories it contained—memories of an enchanting eleventh-hour discovery, and funny jokes, and a life confirmed, memories that my son would perhaps one day share, as he struggled to hear what his grandparents had heard in their brief, rhapsodic valediction.

“Not overly sad,” I said, finally. “Now, quiet! Here comes your favorite part.”

Top: Yo-Yo Ma with the author’s parents, Murray and Lil Barbash (Photo by Jean Brubaker)

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