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A Master Leaves His Mark

Cellists For 15-year-old Paul Wiancko, performing for renowned Yo-Yo Ma profoundly changes the way he views music--and his future.


Two more hours, and 15-year-old Paul Wiancko will open his cello case, which is bedecked with fuzzy dice and peeling stickers from places like Pedros taco stand and rock station KLOS-FM. Two more hours, and with cold hands in a temperate theater, Paul will play for Yo-Yo Ma, the world's most famous cellist, a 12-time Grammy Award winner.

In a way, Paul plays for Ma every day--Ma's picture is tacked to the wall he faces when he practices at home in San Clemente. Paul first heard Ma perform live five years ago and could not believe the way that man moved (Ma will have something to say about the way Paul moves, too).

"I never saw anyone play like that before," said Paul, a sophomore at San Clemente High School. His voice is a shade above a whisper. His words are few; his pauses long.

Paul is a big kid, with soft features and thick, wavy black hair. He has wide hands and long fingers. He has played the cello for 10 years and loves its rich, deep tone that speaks volumes.

Until a few months ago, he never liked to practice. He would play less than an hour a day, which is terrible, he knows, for a serious musician. But when you're gifted and restless, and the playing comes easily, it's hard not to blow off the scales and the etudes for e-mail or a Public Enemy hip-hop CD.

By contrast, Ma has told interviewers that he felt cut off from other kids when he was growing up, laser-focused on the cello. Paul's attention wanders to snowboarding--with wrist guards, of course--and in the summer, he body surfs with his father, Gene Wiancko, 75, a retired documentary film producer.

Two weeks before he performs for Ma, in a master class at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, Paul says he may become a cellist in a chamber orchestra when he grows up. Or maybe an architect, designing Japanese gardens.

But Paul has begun a slow pivot away from ambiguity. In September, he switched to master teacher Ronald Leonard, principal cellist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He started practicing at least 90 minutes a day. Distractions started to fall away. Then in early October, Paul got word that he had been chosen--along with three UC Irvine students--to play for Ma.

In the world of classical music, the superstars often speak of a moment that pitched them forward as kids. Ma played for legendary cellist Pablo Casals at age 7. Leonard started taking lessons from the Boston Symphony's lead cellist when he was Paul's age.

Paul doesn't know what to expect.

"Nothing in particular," he said. "That's what makes it exciting. I don't know what I'm going to learn. I can't wait to hear what he has to say."

Two hours, and Paul will walk on stage with his French cello and a new bow so fine that the maker exhibited it in Paris. In front of 300 people, including his first cello teacher, he will play the first movement of the Concerto in D minor by Edouard Lalo (1823-1892).

Playing the Cello at Age 5

As a baby, his parents say, Paul smiled at Mozart's sweet sounds; fussed at Hindemith's dissonant music. Paul's mother, 54-year-old Hiroko Wiancko, an elementary school teacher, plays the viola and violin. His sister, Michi, 22, plays the violin. Another sister, Marika, 25, plays piano. By the time Paul was 5, he had settled on the cello, which he liked for its size and sound.

Growing up, Paul took private lessons and played chamber music with the family. By age 12, he had put on a tuxedo for solo concerts with Saddleback College's symphony orchestra in Mission Viejo and with the Jewish Community Center Orchestra at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Last year, he began playing with the Colburn Chamber Orchestra in Los Angeles. Next year, he will compete in the American String Teachers Assn.'s national competition, as a winner in the state and regional finals.

In September, he beat out eight high school students--all recommended by Orange County music teachers--for a spot in Ma's master class, which was organized by UC Irvine, the Barclay and the Philharmonic Society of Orange County.

"What we really liked about Paul's playing," said Margaret Parkins, a UC Irvine cello professor, "was his depth. He seemed to play from deep within himself, which is very impressive. He seemed very calm and poised. . . . In a way, you can guide someone to find things to express, but it's something that's intangible and hard to teach."

Parkins called Paul with the news.

"I thought, 'Wow, Yo-Yo Ma,' " Paul said.

"Probably first thing after that was, 'I have to practice more.' "

Under Leonard, he had just started learning the Lalo piece, a standard concerto played by most accomplished cellists. It's a tricky piece, but that's not the only reason Leonard has him play it. The piece is fiery, passionate.

Students come from all over the world to study with Leonard at USC's School of Music. (Leonard takes on only a few hand-selected high school students.) In Leonard's office, Paul's one-hour lesson usually stretches to 75 minutes. Paul gets off a few notes, sometimes a few bars, before Leonard stops him.

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