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We tiptoed into the Balboa Theatre for the San Diego Symphony this morning, trying to muffle our footsteps so we wouldn’t disturb the ripples of sound hovering in the room.

Yo-Yo Ma, the symphony’s guest soloist tonight, was engaged in a particularly tender part of a piece of music. For a few moments, his cello was the only instrument playing. Then concertmaster Jeff Thayer, the orchestra’s top violinist, joined him for a short duet. A few minutes later, Ma thrust his bow across several strings at once, creating quick-moving chords.

Nobody’s holding back on the superlatives today, on the day of the symphony’s 100th anniversary gala. Ma’s a virtuoso, the most recognizable classical musician in the world. The piece he’s playing tonight has been called the greatest piece ever written for that instrument, the Cello Concerto in B minor by Antonin Dvořák.

Even the couple of minutes we heard of his playing were wonderful. The audience for tonight’s sold-out concert and gala is in for a delightful experience.

But when the rehearsal was finished, I wanted to talk to the other nine cellists on stage this morning — the ones who live here and play week in and week out with the symphony and other local groups, the ones who work in this economy year-round and teach kids how to play beginning cello.

Because of Ma’s contract with the orchestra for performing tonight, we weren’t allowed to photograph him rehearsing with the ensemble. During the musicians’ break, as Ma rushed off to film a snippet for the symphony’s gala video, Sam Hodgson and I jumped onstage to chat with the cellists.

I knew the bravado of a professional musician wouldn’t leave much room for frank talk of star-struck nervousness. But I had to know: Do you play any differently, knowing the master of your instrument is sitting right there?

“If a bassoonist were playing the same piece, I’d want to play just as well,” said Marcia Bookstein, a cellist with the San Diego Symphony since 1977. She’s played with Ma the other times he’s played in San Diego, too.

But Bookstein said she was listening carefully to Ma’s execution of the Dvořák piece, a mainstay for cellists. She told me that for several years when she was younger, she participated in a weekly session where students would bring pieces they were working on so they could be critiqued. And every week, sometimes twice a week, someone would be working on this cello concerto.

“There’s a lot of really, really hard stuff,” she said. “I know the pitfalls.”

I dropped my voice to my best you-can-tell-me whisper: “Did Yo-Yo, um, hit any of those pitfalls?”

“Oh no! He played it masterfully,” she said.

While Sam corralled the cellists for a quick snapshot, I tapped Yao Zhao on the shoulder. Zhao is the symphony’s top cellist, the principal of the section since 2007. He’s been playing at least as a substitute for other players since 1999.

I told him I know it’s his job to care about any soloist who plays with the symphony. But what’s different when the soloist plays your own instrument?

Playing with Ma can be a lot of pressure, Zhao said.

“He brings so much energy to rehearsal, and works so hard, everyone wants to work harder,” he said. “But he’ll look at you, and wink at you or smile at you, and cut a lot of that pressure.”

It’s too late if you’re hoping to go — the concert and gala is sold out.

But if you want a taste of Ma’s performance of the piece, here’s a clip of the third movement when he played it with the New York Philharmonic:

I’m the arts editor for VOSD. Have an idea for something I should write about San Diego’s arts scene? Please contact me directly at or 619.325.0531. You can also follow me on Twitter: @kellyrbennett.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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