When Yo-Yo Ma and Lecolion Washington met at a party last October, the pair hit it off. Ma found out that Washington, who is executive director of the arts education nonprofit Community Music Center of Boston, was a bassoonist and asked if he knew “Sonata for Bassoon and Cello in B-flat major K.292/196c.,” a Mozart piece written for their instruments. He did.
Ma then started humming the cello part of the sonata and looked at Washington expectedly. Washington joined in, and they air-played about 40 measures of the duet.
On Thursday, Ma made a surprise appearance with Washington around noon at the Dudley Cafe in Nubian Square. The duo had kept in touch and become fast friends. They performed the duet and a piece called “Lecolion Loops,” which Washington commissioned from composer Daniel Bernard Roumain. It was a part of Washington’s tenure project years ago when he was teaching at the University of Memphis; he recorded a CD of bassoon pieces by Black composers.
“There wasn’t a lot of music by Black composers for bassoon, especially back then,” said Washington, who commissioned the piece in honor of the birth of his first child, the older of his two sons, who’s now a sophomore in high school. The composition, originally a trio for piano, bassoon, and clarinet, was meant to be played by Washington and his wife, Carina, who is Swedish and a clarinetist. It is based on a Swedish folk song and has rap influences.
“It was really to commemorate the birth of our son who was a marriage of the Black and Swedish cultures,” Washington added. “This piece is also a marriage of Black and Swedish culture.”
Before the performance, Ma visited the music center and met the faculty and staff, student workers, and board members to learn about their work to make music more inclusive and engage students around the city. According to Jess Chen, senior director of development and external relations, CMCB is “the largest external provider of arts education to the Boston Public Schools,” with more than 4,000 students participating in its programs every week.
“I don’t think there are many schools you can go to where you get teachers, administration, board members all getting together [to] articulate the same ideals,” Ma said to the group at the center. “Really, congratulations. I’m so glad we had this time together.”
At the pop-up concert outside the cafe, wind threatened to blow sheet music away, and buses pulled in and out of the nearby terminal, but that didn’t deter the nearly 100 people who gathered to listen. Among those in the audience were Brenda Cassellius, the outgoing superintendent of Boston Public Schools, former and current students and staff and faculty of the CMCB, and people who happened to be eating at the cafe or in the area. The performance was not publicized in advance, but CMCB did reach out to invite people who work in the BPS administrative office above the cafe.
Monique Brun, a retired French teacher from Roxbury, found out about the concert from a friend who called her that morning. She got out of bed, took a shower, and camped out at the cafe starting at 10 a.m. She called the performance a “gift” for her community.
“I’m a lifelong Roxbury native, and I couldn’t have imagined Yo-Yo Ma here 25 years ago,” said Adebola Owolewa. “This was just an amazing opportunity — to see the entire crowd here shows that people were touched, and inspired.”
Ma, who in addition to being a world-famous cellist is known for his work in the community, interspersed educational and comedic moments throughout the performance. At one point, a fire truck honked lightly as it drove by, and Ma, without missing a beat, imitated the noise on his cello. During one of the breaks, he told the crowd about his visit to CMCB earlier that day.
“If you want to play an instrument, go to that music school, " Ma said and jokingly added, “What’s the name of the school?”
“Community Music Center of Boston,” Washington replied with a smile. Ma led the crowd to chant the name of the school before resuming their performance.
“Everybody calls us the best-kept secret,” chief financial and operating officer Meghan Jasani told Ma when he asked about their hopes for the program at CMCB. “I want us to be well known for what we do and that we provide music education to all students.”
Serena Puang was a Globe intern in 2022. Follow her on Twitter @SerenaPuang.