Summer 2004 Vol. II, Nos 3 and 4
 From the Editors
 To the Editors
 AUB News
 Campaign Update
 Behold Beirut Architecture’s
 New Frontier
 The Post-AUB Architectural Life
 An Exact Type
 Architecture and Graphic Design
 Students “JAM”
 Shaping the Landscape of Lebanon
 Blueprint in Action
 Commencement 2004
 Honorary Degrees 2004
 Young Lebanese Musicians Learn
Lessons from the Master
 More than a Stamp of Approval: AUB
 Receives Accreditation
 Alumni Profile
 Alumni Activities
 AUB Reflections
 Class Notes
 In Memoriam
 Previous Issues

Young Lebanese Musicians Learn Lessons from the Master

MainGate takes a front-row seat at the special master class held by celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

For three talented and remarkably poised young Lebanese musicians, it was indeed the experience of a lifetime to be the only students in the master class held by world-famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma in the Assembly Hall on June 28. In Beirut for just a few days, the exuberant young musician, often described as the greatest living cellist, had come to AUB to receive an honorary doctorate of humane letters.

The master class program, sponsored by AUB, the American Embassy, the Lebanese National Conservatory, and CultureConnect (a U.S. State Department program for the improvement of global cross-cultural understanding), followed a preset format. Before a large audience, Yo-Yo Ma communicated intensely for 45 minutes with each of his students separately. Each young cellist was called upon to interpret two musical compositions for cello or cello and piano (with Olga Bolun on the piano), after which the master cellist gave advice on technique, style, emotional communication with the audience, and how to relate to both piano and orchestral accompaniment—and even to the concert hall space itself.

Marking each session were the passion, energy, warm patience, and profound communication skills of Yo-Yo Ma. As he listened to each performance, he moved around the hall, crouched near the stage, testing sounds from different angles. Ma’s communication with his young students was unceasingly vibrant: moving about rapidly in his shirtsleeves, he taught through body language as well as through questions and answers. On stage with each young cellist, Ma sang some notes and phrases, played a few bars on the piano, took up his bow and played with the student—always encouraging and sketching out techniques for improvement with his hands. He counted the beat and asked the audience to snap fingers and clap. He questioned his pupils and entertained questions from the audience—and everyone in the Assembly Hall actively participated. In constant conversation with the students, Ma stressed the need for musicians to share their knowledge, saying that the musician must emphasize three main areas: musical content, communication, and audience reception.

The youngest pupil, 13-year-old Sari Khalifeh, already a veteran of the concert hall, began the class with the Prelude from Bach’s Suite No. 2 in D Minor, followed by the third movement of F. J. Haydn’s Concerto in C Major. Young Khalife, a student of Sarkis Kochkarian, started playing the cello at age seven. In January of this year, he performed Camille Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto with the Lebanese National Symphony Orchestra.


“Beau! Beau! Beau!” exclaimed Ma after young Khalife’s performance, as he guided the student in French, asking questions, repeating phrases, and playing along with the budding cellist. Ma, in demanding understanding of the lightness of the music, asked Khalife if he liked sparkling water and to think of that while playing. Crouching directly in front of the player, Ma persuaded the boy to make eye contact with his audience. With each renewed phrase, the audience confirmed the growing depth of the performance.

Ma turned next to 16-year-old Jana Semaan, who played the second movement of Haydn’s Concerto in C Major and David Popper’s Etude Concertante from his Spinnlied.  In both English and French, Ma prompted the young musician to consider the relationship of her rendition with the piano accompanist, the orchestra, the audience, and with the hall itself.

The most mature student, Nassib Ahmadieh, had already played with Yo-Yo Ma and an ensemble in Carnegie Hall last year. Currently a member of the Lebanese National Symphony Orchestra, Ahmadieh played the first movement of Antonin Dvorak’s Concerto in B Minor and Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G Major. Ma led his pupil to consider in depth the values of notes and scales. “Know what you want the audience to know about the music,” he said. For the many-faceted Ma, communication with the audience appeared to be all.

At the conclusion of the class, members of the audience rushed to the front of the hall and crowded around Yo-Yo Ma, begging for a word, an autograph, a shake of the maestro’s hand.