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Yo-Yo Ma's prediction set city cellist on path

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Winnipeg-based cellist Minna Rose Chung might owe her career to world-renowned musician Yo-Yo Ma.

After she performed in his master class at the Tanglewood music festival held each summer in Lenox, Mass., Ma was so impressed by her playing he predicted great things lay in store for the then 14-year old.

"He said, 'Wow, you're really talented. You should be a musician,'" Chung recounts of the life-altering experience that validated her youthful aspirations of becoming a professional musician. The multiple award-winning artist then asked her to play duets with him -- a dream come true for the Ohio-born cellist who used to drive hours with her mother to see Ma in concert, patiently waiting afterwards to present a dozen red roses to her revered hero.

"I was so excited that I forgot all my F-sharps," she says with a laugh. "I was horrified beyond belief. He didn't seem to mind, but that's when I realized I had to learn how to sight-read better."

Audiences will be able to see Chung in action when she performs with her chamber music ensemble, the Azure String Quartet, at the Rady Jewish Community Centre Music SSRqN' Mavens series March 11 at 2 p.m.

Founded in 2010, the quartet also includes violinists Elation Pauls and Chris Anstey, as well as violist Laszlo Baroczi, who all perform with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra. Chung, who moved to Winnipeg in 2007 following a teaching post at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is the professor of cello for the University of Manitoba's Desautels Faculty of Music. She also moonlights with the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra; the Oleg and Friends series established by Winnipeg violinist Oleg Pokhanovski; and is involved with Project Rio, an education and outreach program where musicians perform and teach disadvantaged youth in the slums of Brazil.

"It's going to be a gorgeous concert. I know the audience is going to absolutely love it," promises artistic director Karla Berbrayer of the eclectic one-hour program that includes classical, romantic Latin and Soviet music, as well as crowd-pleasing tangos.

Berbrayer originally founded the popular mid-day concert/lecture series in 1998 as a way to provide high-calibre entertainment for those unable -- or unwilling -- to venture out to evening shows in the depths of winter. Each program, held every Tuesday and Thursday from mid-January to mid-March, lasts one hour, followed by a post-show reception where audience members can mingle with the guest artists.

"A lot of people said to me at the time, 'You're not going to get people out in minus 40-degree weather,' and I said 'Just watch me!'" says the tireless impresario, who also produces the Israeli Concert Series (now incorporated with the Tarbut Festival of Jewish Culture), among others. Fast-forward 16 years, and the annual series has grown to an impressive 20-show lineup that showcases local classical, jazz and folk musicians as well as a host of guest speakers -- the "mavens" -- at rock-bottom ticket prices.

Each program draws up to 100 audience members from every part of the city, with admission to all lectures by optional silver collection.

In addition to whiling away a pleasant hour or two, you're also guaranteed several "aha" moments gleaned from the artists who provide fascinating factoids and lore during each program.

"The educational component is very important to me, as I think it's beneficial for audiences to come away having learned something," Berbrayer explains. "I always search for people who are comfortable speaking about their work and why they even got into the type of music that they chose."

One can't-miss highlight of the latest program is also a personal favourite of Chung's. Movie buffs might remember actor Al Pacino's heart-stopping tango during the 1992 film Scent of a Woman. The quartet will be performing the sultry Por una Cabeza, arranged by Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, which was featured in the Oscar-winning movie.

"It's just so effervescent and instantly puts a smile on your face. You're going to like it from the very first note. It's just incredibly easy on the ears," Chung enthuses.

The concert also includes Pieni Sydan's Little Heart tango arranged by Tom Watrous, as well as Consuelo Vel°zquez's lushly romantic Besame Mucho. More classical fare, including chamber works by Mozart, Glazunov, Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich, will also be offered.

"The biggest thing about this concert is the contrast of colours that we're bringing to the table. We're giving the audience a good span of classical to romantic chamber works, as well as lighter pieces which are just for the joy of listening," Chung says.

And that might include more than just taking in the music. When asked how she thinks the crowd will respond, Chung replies with a laugh: "I hope there will be dancing in the aisles!"

The series continues through March 13. Tickets ($6 Rady JCC members/$10 general public) are available at the door. Lectures are by optional silver collection. For further information, call 204 477-7510 or visit: www.radyjcc.com.

holly.harris@shaw.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 5, 2014 C2

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