17-year-old from New Gloucester shares stage with world-famous musician

PORTLAND – Cellist Mary Randall, 17, quaked backstage as she prepared to meet a hero.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, how nervous are you?” she asked two other student cellists who waited with her. One said “a six.” Another said “two.”

“I’m at 13!” she said.

Minutes later, a door opened and the petite blonde walked onto the grand Merrill Auditorium stage where she met superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who introduced her and surrendered the spotlight.

“This is Mary and Mary plays the cello,” Ma said. He climbed down the stage to listen, sometimes staring at the floor as the girl played from Bach’s “Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello.”

The event, preceding Ma’s sold-out concert Thursday at the Portland auditorium, was billed as a master class with the cellist.

The venue’s association, PCA Great Performances, worked with local arts groups to offer the rare tutorial to three area kids: Randall, who lives in New Gloucester and attends Hebron Academy; Harim Park, 16, of Scarborough; and John Moody, 15, of Readfield.

Several hundred people, including many music teachers, paid $10 each to attend the class and watch Ma at work.

He spent almost half of his allotted two hours with Randall.

While she played, he stood, paced the aisles and sometimes watched with his head tilted to the left. When the girl finished her performance of the Bach suites, Ma applauded and waved at her until she stood twice for the audience.

Then, he began his instruction with a chat. They talked about her favorite foods (pizza and chocolate), favorite books (“The Kite Runner”) and her favorite instrument (yes, the cello).

“Where do you think I’m going with this?” he asked. He smiled at Randall, who shrugged back.

“I’m not sure,” he confessed warmly.

Then, he returned to the Bach. He prodded her about the piece, asking what she wanted to accomplish.

“Where would you transport us?” he said.

“Higher,” Randall said.

Together, the pair worked on Randall’s bow handling. Then, to illustrate the recurring “D” note in one section, Ma picked up his 276-year-old cello and played with the girl.

“I thought, ‘I’m playing with Yo-Yo Ma,” Randall said later. “This is the pinnacle of my high school career.”

Of course, the 54-year-old cellist has had other partners, including lots of symphonies and a growing number of popular artists. Among them are Allison Krauss, James Taylor and Dave Brubeck. He also performed at the inaugural for President Barack Obama.

Randall, who has played cello since she was 5, has always admired Ma.

“He always seems so happy when he’s playing,” she said.

In person, Ma exceeded her expectations.

“Wasn’t he nice?” she said. “He was so down to Earth.”

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