Songs of Comfort and Hope

Songs of Comfort and Hope

Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott’s Songs of Comfort and Hope was written as a direct response to the coronavirus pandemic. “It felt like a blizzard, then a long winter,” Ma tells Apple Music. “And then, thirdly, we realized that there are a lot of things that are kind of broken, all over the world. And that takes more than a winter to fix.” It’s in that spirit that Songs of Comfort and Hope opens, with British composer Graham Fitkin’s striking new, multi-layered arrangement of “Amazing Grace.” The story behind the song, says Stott, felt particularly fitting. “John Newton, who wrote it all those years ago, was serving at sea and was caught in an incredible storm off Ireland,” the British pianist tells Apple Music. “He literally shouted to God for mercy. He wasn’t at all religious, but he was desperate. The storm subsided and, after a time, he realized the error of his ways and had a kind of epiphany. I thought it was a really nice way to start the album.” Songs of Comfort and Hope reunites the cellist and pianist five years after their acclaimed album Songs from the Arc of Life. (Their friendship dates all the way back to 1978.) And, like many projects in 2020, the album started on a video call. “We kept talking about doing something after Arc of Life and I was vaguely thinking about something involving folk song,” says Stott. “Then Yo-Yo started his streamed ‘Songs of Comfort’ at the start of the pandemic, and one day we had a chat on Zoom and ideas started to form.” “We didn’t want to do just an album of beautiful songs or just pretty things,” adds Ma. “We were looking for reasons. Kathy was so fantastic in thinking about what we’re going through now, and how we could create a response to what’s going on and offer a recording that says something to actually give people comfort and hope.” Not just a fine pianist, Stott also enjoys planning and programming and has, for many years, been the Artistic Director of the Australian Festival of Chamber Music. Her enviable contacts book gave her access to the musicians involved in the album, including the British pianist and composer Stephen Hough (“Scarborough Fair”) and the British baritone and composer Roderick Williams, whose version of “Thula Baba” is one of its highlights. Both were keen to involve some younger musicians, too, and via her Australian connections, Stott contacted the Sydney-based composer Harry Sdraulig (“Over the past three years, I’ve really noticed he’s starting to get some serious attention,” she says), who offered a version of “Waltzing Matilda.” “I think the comforting part is the fact that you hear these pieces and you think, ‘Yeah, I know that,’” suggests Stott. “That makes you feel a sense of belonging to something, when everybody is really displaced and very isolated. It’s amazing how these little three-minute pieces can transport you so quickly.”

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