Ninety cellists, most of them from the Capital Region, trooped up on to the amphitheater’s stage at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center on Wednesday for the venue’s first PlayIN.
“It’s the most important thing in our world,” said famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who played the first two pieces with the participants. “Music is the connective tissue. It expands our imagination. It’s a magical thing. And these PlayINs are exactly what’s needed. It’s generational transfer and not from the parents.”
Ma often helps out at the PlayINs in Philadelphia where they’ve been held for about 10 years, having been initiated by the orchestra’s cello section, cellist Gloria dePasquale said. They’ve been so successful that the orchestra has expanded them to all the instruments. The program is funded by a National Endowment for the Arts grant for the orchestra’s Health Education in Access and Research educational and outreach initiative.
On Wednesday, the cellists, who ranged in age from 6 to 70, were a mixed bunch that included beginners to adult amateur and some local professionals.
Seven Philadelphia cellists also helped out. The only criterion to perform was the ability to play “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star Variations” and “French Folk Song,” both of them from Suzuki Cello Book I. Once the cellists registered a few weeks ago, they were sent the music, which included works by Breval, J.S.Bach, Schubert, Paganini and Vivaldi.
As the cellists were all called on to the stage and family and friends seated themselves, a few of the cellists took time to answer some questions.
Karen Zhu, a junior at Guilderland High School, said she’d been playing cello for five years and is a member of the Empire State Youth Orchestra, one of 21 ESYO cellists at the event.
“It’s kind of cool what cello can turn into ... like Yo-Yo Ma as the soloist, but also in terms of being in the orchestra,” she said. “It’s nice to hear about the Philadelphia Orchestra’s cellists’ experience.”
Abigail Norsworthy has only been playing cello two years as she’s only 8 years old and attends Saratoga Springs’ Lake Avenue Elementary School.
“I love the cello’s tone,” she said. “And this (PlayIN) is a very, very special opportunity.”
There were also other young students, at least nine from the Schenectady area that included two from the ESYO’s CHIME program at Yates Elementary School. Gabreal Reid, 8, and Shmayah Halsey, 11, didn’t have much to say beyond that Gabreal has been playing for two years and Shmayah just started two months ago.
“I like how it sounds,” Shmayah said.
There were also a few adults. Samuel Morris of Albany, a cello devotee for 46 years when he’s not working as an engineer, said he loved the whole idea of the PlayIN.
“It’s fantastic,” he said. “I never thought I’d get to play with Yo-Yo Ma.”
Morris belongs to a summer cello group called Tutti Celli, which performs a concert before disbanding. His cello friend Joan Reilly, also of Albany, said she has a cello/guitar duo with her husband called Burning Nut that performs at local nursing homes when she’s not working as a floral designer.
As everyone gathered onstage, Ma and Alsop were introduced to cheers and waves. Alsop mounted the podium and Ma sat facing the cellists to play through the first two pieces from the Suzuki Cello Book. The group sounded very mellow and very confident, as if they’d all been practicing.
Then Ma and Alsop left to prepare for Wednesday night’s concert and PO assistant conductor Kensho Watanabe came out to guide the rest of the show.
SPAC president Elizabeth Sobol was on hand and seemed pleased. Would she hold another PlayIN next season?
“For sure,” she said with a thumb’s up.