The Cellist of Sarajevo

As I often say, music has been like a magic carpet for me, taking me to places and experiences that I could not imagine otherwise. Here’s one of them:

I was once invited by the cellist Eugene Friesen to perform with him at the International Cello Festival in Manchester, England. Every two years a group of the world’s greatest cellists gathers in Manchester for a week of celebration. It’s not a competition or merely a string of performances, but a true celebration of the cello, with workshops, masterclasses, concerts, seminars, recitals and parties all day and evening for a week. There is a tremendous feeling of fellowship and friendliness, as well as an incredibly high standard of musicianship. The Patroness of the Festival this year was the Duchess of Kent, and it was an easy, natural blending of royal formality, sophistication, and relaxed camaraderie.

Every evening the entire group of about 600 or so gathered in the Royal Conservatory Concert Hall for the major concert of the day. We sat in the same seats every night, so that by the end of the week you knew all your neighbors and it felt like the lodge at a scout camp. My seat was on the aisle not 20 feet from center stage, so I had a perfect, unobstructed view of all the proceedings. And what proceedings! Every single note that came off that stage was the polished, burnished work of a master. Once after the next, the greatest players in the world came out, took a bow, flattened us with lyricism, poetry, precision and virtuosity, and then yielded the stage to the next astounding colleague. The concerts all lasted for several hours, and sometimes we would break at intermission for a sumptuous buffet in the dining room – lots of silver, champagne and tuxedos with medals and sashes. Then back to the concert hall for another hour or two. One evening the entire BBC Orchestra was onstage for 4 hours – playing nothing but cello concertos all night! It was a musical heaven.

The opening night concert featured unaccompanied cello only. There on the great stage sat a single, solitary chair. No piano, no music stand, just a chair. Each performer played only one piece, so the atmosphere was charged with concentration and focus. If ever a chair could be called a hotseat, that was it.

The moment of a lifetime followed the performance by Yo Yo Ma. He played a piece called the Cellist of Sarajevo, written by a contemporary English composer named David Wilde. The program notes told the amazing story behind the piece: On May 27th, 1992, a bakery in Sarajevo which happened to have a supply of flour was making bread and distributing it to the starving, war-shattered people. At 4 p.m., a long line stretched into the street. Suddenly, a shell fell directly into the middle of the line, killing 22 people outright and splattering blood and gore over the entire area.

A hundred yards away lived a 37-year-old man named Vedran Smailovic. Before the war he had been the principal cellist of the Sarajevo Opera Company – a distinguished and civilized job, no doubt. When he saw the massacre outside his window, he was pushed beyond his capacity to endure any more. Driven by his anguish, he decided he had to take action, and so he did the only thing he could do. He made music. Every day thereafter, at 4 p.m. precisely, Mr. Smailovic would put on his full, formal concert attire, and walk out of his apartment into the midst of the battle raging around him. He would place a little camp stool in the middle of the bomb-craters, and play a concert to the abandoned streets, while bombs dropped and bullets flew all around him. Day after day he made his unimaginably courageous stand for human dignity, for civilization, for compassion, and for peace. As though protected by a divine shield, he was never hurt, though his darkest hour came when, taking a little walk to stretch his legs, his cello was shelled and destroyed where he had been sitting. The news wires picked up the story of this extraordinary man, sitting in his white tie and tails on a camp stool in the center of a raging, hellish war zone – playing his cello to the empty air. The composer David Wilde was so moved by the report that he wrote the piece which Yo Yo Ma played for us that evening.

Yo Yo sat down quietly on his little stool in his white tie and tails, and began. Quietly, almost imperceptibly, the music started, creating a shadowy, empty universe pervaded by the sense of death. Slowly, it built and grew into an agonized, screaming, slashing furor which gradually subsided back into a desolate death rattle – fading seamlessly back into silence.

When he finished, he remained bent over his cello, bow still resting on the strings. No one moved – we scarcely dared to breath. We all felt that we had just witnessed that horrible scene ourselves. After a long period of absolute silence, Yo Yo slowly straightened in his chair, looked into the audience and raised his hand. He beckoned someone to come to the stage – and we realized it was him – the cellist of Sarajevo himself! He rose from his seat and headed down the aisle as Yo Yo came off the stage and headed up the aisle to meet him. With arms flung wide, they met each other in a passionate embrace right at my chair. I simply couldn’t believe what was happening. At that point, everyone in the hall leaped to his feet in a chaotic emotional frenzy, clapping, weeping, shouting, embracing, cheering. It was deafening and overwhelming. And in the center of it all stood these two men, still hugging, both crying. Yo Yo Ma, the suave, elegant prince of classical music worldwide, flawless in appearance and performance. And Vedran Smailovic, who had just escaped from Sarajevo, dressed in a tattered and stained leather motorcycle suit with fringe on the arms. His wild long hair and huge mustache framed a face that looked 80 years old – creased with pain and wet with so many tears. And this was the first time he had heard the piece. I stared at them, wanting to remember every single detail, so that one day I could describe it to my son, and say, “I was there”! And I thought of the audience – all the jewels and perfume and sophistication now completely meaningless and forgotten – all stripped down to the starkest, deepest humanity. What a triumph for us all. What a triumph for dignity and compassion. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony pales next to the emotion in that hall that night. And what a triumph for the cello! Here was a room filled with people whose lives had been largely devoted to that simple and unassuming instrument. Here were bowmakers, collectors, amateurs, historians, varnishers, and of course, the great master players. They had come from all over the world to celebrate the cello together for a week. And here, on the first night, they encounter this man who shook his cello in the face of bombs, death and ruin and defied them. It became the sword of Joan of Arc. It became the mightiest weapon of them all.

It’s because of experiences like this that I call music my magic carpet. A week later I was back playing for the residents of the Penobscot Nursing Home, where I’ve played a free concert/sing along every month for five years or so. And I realized it’s all the same. It’s the privilege, the blessing, and the solemn responsibility of all of us who make music; to try to make the world a tiny bit better each time we play.

And maybe next time I’ll tell you about how, later that week in Manchester, Eugene and I created a furor of our own – driving half the audience out of the hall, while the other half whistled, cheered and clapped in rhythm, wanting more, more and more. But that’s another story entirely . . .