Medical Tuesday Blog

A Review of Regional Medical Journals: Sonoma Medicine

Sep 30

Written by: Del Meyer
09/30/2016 6:51 AM 

CULTURE: Decapitated by Beauty

Rick Flinders, MD

If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.
—Emily Dickinson

I spotted an empty seat at the bar, next to an elegantly dressed woman, and saw exactly the opportunity I was seeking. I took a seat, ordered a drink and introduced myself, thinking it had been many years since I had done such a thing. I was direct with my request. She had a welcoming smile and sparkling ear rings, and she was 80 years old. I asked her if she had tickets to the concert and, if so, how on earth she had gotten them.  Read more . . .

“We bought the package, young man, and had dibs on the Yo Yo Ma tickets before they went on sale.”

It was then that the slightly younger lady sitting next to her absolutely knocked me out: “Yes, we actually bought three, but our friend couldn’t come. We were going to turn it in to the box office for resale, but they’re not open yet.”

I had come prepared, three hours early and with substantial cash, to try and score two tickets for my wife and me to hear one of the world’s greatest living musicians, performing the solo cello suites of Johann Sebastian Bach. Failing that, I was even prepared to scale a nearby eucalyptus tree, just to hear a few notes spilling out into the evening air from the world-class Weill Hall at Sonoma State University. But my luck at the music center’s Prelude bar was singular and, try as I might, I couldn’t score another ticket.

I texted my wife, offering her the ticket, but she wouldn’t think of it. “No, no and no,” she texted back. “You go have a glass of wine, listen to the music, and then come home and tell me about each and every note.”

When I got home later that night, I told her, “Honey, I think I’ve seen what it might have been like to watch Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel or sculpt his statue of David. What we heard tonight was no less masterful or perfect than a creation by Rembrandt.”

It was live, in person and in a concert hall built exclusively from clear-grained European beech wood for the sound of pure music. Ma walked alone to the stage, joked with an usher, smiled and nodded to the billionaire donor who built the hall. He thanked the luthier who had performed emergency surgery that afternoon on his cello, inadvertently damaged on the morning flight from Hawaii. He explained the suites he was about to play were, for him, an expression of the feelings produced from the interaction of humans with nature. He said wine was an excellent example of humans interacting with nature. “Beautiful,” he added, “and that’s even before you drink it.”

Ma also said that Bach was describing more than beauty in these works. The famous cellist then used adjectives such as joyous, difficult, somber and sublime. Finally he sat in the solitary chair at center stage, embraced his cello and, without speaker or microphone, filled the hall with sound, lost to language.

He played for nearly two hours, without notation or score, every note memorized in both his brain and probably his heart, interpreting Bach as if he were telling a story he had learned and lived and developed since childhood. He is one of those rare musicians in whose hands an instrument is so mastered that it becomes an almost natural extension of the artist, his body, his voice, his entire means of expression. Such is Yo Yo Ma. He seemed transported during his performance. And so were we.

When he finished, we could only stand and applaud, and we could not stop. When he returned to the stage, he did so with cello and bow in hand. I believe it was the only way he could get us to stop. What he did next was equally moving. He acknowledged Pablo Casals, and thanked him for discovering Bach’s unaccompanied suites and bringing them to the world’s attention by recording them in 1920. And in homage to Casals, he played Casal’s signature “Song of the Birds,” commemorating his remarkable performance of the piece before the United Nations in 1971. In a world torn by rioting, assassinations and war, the aging Casals addressed the General Assembly:

“I have not performed in public for over forty years. But today I must play. This piece would have been loved by Bach and Beethoven. It is a song from my own home land of Catalan and is called “The Song of the Birds.” The birds are in the sky and they are crying ‘Peace! Peace! Peace!’”

When Ma finished the three-minute piece, he left the stage with no need to return. I’ve never been to the Sistine Chapel, nor looked upon the statue of David or seen an original Rembrandt. But like Michelangelo and Rembrandt centuries before him, Yo Yo Ma placed before us a work of decapititating beauty—and then left us with a sublime message of peace.

Dr. Flinders, who teaches hospital medicine at the Santa Rosa Family Medicine Residency, serves on the SCMA Editorial Board.

See a video of Casals’ 1971 UN performance.

SONOMA MEDICINE  |  Summer 2015  |  Sonoma County Medical Association

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