Tickets to Yo-Yo Ma's Richmond concert sold out even before they went on sale to the public. Why everyone is clamoring to see this classical cellist 

Gaga for Yo-Yo

"Does anyone have tickets?"

This was Holly Slade's plea to her friends in the Richmond Philharmonic. Slade, a violinist, wanted tickets to see Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax at the Carpenter Center and surely someone in this company of music lovers had some. She was to be disappointed. The hottest act in town had completely sold out, even before the tickets went on sale to the public.

On Feb. 29, 2,000, people will cram into the Carpenter Center to hear one of the most acclaimed musicians of this or any century. Aside from the occasional portly tenor, Yo-Yo Ma possibly may be the most well-known living classical musician. His appearances on "Sesame Street" and David Letterman, and his forays into multimedia projects with dancers, ice skaters and architects attest to his status as premier ambassador for classical music.

Yo-Yo regularly sells out his concerts. But how could tickets to hear Yo-Yo evaporate before they go on sale to the public, while at some other classical concerts you'd swear you were in the Grand Canyon from the sound of the wind whistling through the empty seats?

Many tickets went to the University of Richmond's Modlin Center's series subscribers. The Board of the Richmond Symphony had the foresight to purchase tickets for its entire cello section, and all of the student cellists in the Youth Symphony have received tickets to the concert, as well. And two weeks before the public sale date, UR's students and faculty had the opportunity to acquire tickets from the Modlin Center — the students free, the faculty at a nominal charge.

Samantha Sawyer, the Modlin Center's marketing manager, acknowledges that many people will be disappointed, even angry, that single tickets were unavailable to the public. "They kind of got left out," she admits. "We had no idea what an impact it would have on the community."

While there was no way to make more tickets available — the Carpenter Center only seats 2,000 — it may have been possible to free up some tickets by charging UR students for them. However, that would not be in line with the mission of the Modlin Center, Sawyer says. "We could have easily charged $75 a ticket. That's not something we want to do..."

What hold does Yo-Yo maintain over us? We have a generalized, vague faith that no one can touch him, no one can possibly be as good as he. His record sales almost justify a record company's time and energy in producing classical music, which is generally a money-losing venture. One classical music lover laments, "If you go to the cello section of the record store, it's Yo-Yo Ma everywhere. He's the Celine Dion of classical music." But do Yo-Yo's albums of tango music really advance the cause of classical music, or are they part of a superior, even cynical marketing strategy?

Michele Walter, executive director of the Richmond Symphony, points out what may be the core of Yo-Yo's appeal. "He speaks to the broader population," she says. "He's more relevant." Walter adds that his speaking to people is not only metaphorical — he often sacrifices a good deal of time to actually connect with people. Yo-Yo and pianist Ax will give a lecture/demonstration for University of Richmond students on the afternoon of the concert, and Yo-Yo will be available after his concert to speak to anyone who wants an audience with him, under the proviso that children gets first dibs.

This is the definition of a superstar. Yo-Yo cultivates his audience, and he does it well. And yet if you played three recordings of a Bach suite for cello recorded by three different cellists, how many people could discern among them? In this winner-take-all society, we have one millionaire winner, one party in the power, one company running everything, and one cello player. Lynn Harrell, Nathaniel Rosen and Heinrich Schiff are all great cellists — and all are wallflowers at Yo-Yo's party.

There is a notion floating about that the cult of celebrity, while not entirely healthy for anyone, is particularly damaging to classical music, and quite possible fatally so for contemporary music. James Oestrich of The New York Times, writes, "Classical music is saddled with oversize, overpriced institutions, and the only way to keep them going, seemingly, is to feed the celebrity culture that has done it so much harm in the first place."

But the consensus among our local arts institutions is the opposite — this kind of superstar appearance makes classical music pop up on a community's radar screen. "We doubled our subscriptions this year," Panoff raves. And while many subscribers may have only sought to secure tickets to see Yo-Yo, they were exposed to a variety of music, dance and theatrical events. "Our entire menu's very strong," Panoff says. "It's not just about Yo-Yo Ma and Manny Ax."

The Symphony's Walter might have good reason to worry that Yo-Yo's appearance might pull ticket buyers away from her organization, but says, "No, if anything, it's good for us. It raises the visibility of classical music....[and] increases the community's interest in classical music overall." More important than ticket sales and balancing budgets, a performer like Yo-Yo may draw reluctant listeners to classical music for the first time, inspiring a lifelong relationship with a piece of music.

Two hundred years ago a cellist was a fancy servant — only slightly more important than the court jester. Very few musicians, much less cellists, could become famous or wealthy. Now, many thousands can make a fine living, teaching, performing and recording. This is in part due to the Yo-Yo's of the world, who so astonish us and titillate us, who increase ticket sales across the board in the way the popularity of Coke (pre-Belgium poison scare) inflames the popularity for all carbonated drinks.

And Yo-Yo will not soon pass this way again. According to local arts administrators, an artist like Yo-Yo books concerts years in advance, and there's no guarantee that he will return to any given venue; but streaming in his wake may follow other superstars of increasing stature.

Missing out on this concert might make you feel like one of the loser kids in "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." You ask yourself, "Where's my golden ticket?" But next week, cellist Truls Mork plays with the Richmond Symphony only days before Yo-Yo's appearance. Don't just park yourself in front of the television, pouting and say, "But it's not Yo-Yo Ma."


Conductor David Loebel leads cellist Truls Mork and the Richmond Symphony in two Masterworks concerts on Saturday, Feb. 26 and Monday, Feb. 28 at the Carpenter Center. Tickets are $10-$48. Call 262-8100 for tickets.


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