Ben Hong
Excerpt from the New Yorker

"April 30, 2007

The Anti-maestro;
How Esa-Pekka Salonen transformed the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

By Alex Ross

One day, I followed Ben Hong, the assistant principal cellist, as he went about his daily duties. A shaggy-haired thirty-eight-year-old who commutes on a motorcycle, he has been playing in the Philharmonic since he was twenty-four. He arrived at the hall at 9 A.M. to coach two students in a studio in the building. One of them was working on Elgar's Cello Concerto, and Hong, after working through issues of bowing and phrasing, tried to get his student to think about the piece in terms of "lost innocence" and the legacy of war.

Just before eleven, Hong reported to the main floor of Disney to play a matinèe concert. The program consisted of Brahms's First and Third Symphonies, under the direction of Christoph von Dohnányi, who was visiting for two weeks. "We'll sell some tickets," Borda said of this concert in advance. "Plus, it will be good for the orchestra. Christoph will pick everything to pieces, rehearse in great detail, go back to basics."

After the concert, Hong had lunch with a few younger players: Eric Overholt, who has been playing French horn in the orchestra only since the beginning of the year; Ariana Ghez, the principal oboist, who also started this season; and Joana Carneiro, the assistant conductor. They talked about the audition process ("It's pretty brutal, probably the most difficult thing you have to do as a musician," Hong said); the limits of a conservatory education (Ghez studied English at Columbia alongside music at Juilliard); and the intellectual excitement of playing new works such as "NaÏve and Sentimental Music," which the Philharmonic has recorded for Nonesuch. Some orchestra veterans have never relished Salonen's favored diet of twentieth-century and contemporary fare, but the younger musicians tend to cite it as one of the main attractions of the job. Ghez noted that older listeners no longer run for the exits when a little Ligeti appears on one of the regular programs. Instead, she said, they have been trained to say things like "I guess you have to take it like a Jackson Pollock."

Hong has been thinking more deeply about the gaps in his conservatory training, and wondering what he might learn from other kinds of music-making. In particular, he's become interested in improvisation. After lunch, he drove up some twisting roads in the Laurel Canyon area to the home of Lili Haydn, a session violinist, singer-songwriter, and former child actress, who has been giving him guidance on how to improvise in a semi-jazz, semi-Indian style. This activity falls far outside his usual work with the orchestra, although it fits into the expanded mission of Salonen's Philharmonic, improvisation having a role in much avant-garde music after the Second World War and in quite a bit of alternative-minded contemporary work.

Hong joined Haydn in her studio, which was outfitted with wall hangings and antique lamps. There was a faint smell of incense. First, they worked on a track that will appear on Haydn's forthcoming album. She sang, "We all saw the water sweep the streets with the force that carried Noah." Hong played a doleful, arpeggiated accompaniment. Then the two improvised for twenty minutes or so over an Indian tamboura drone. Hong seemed hesitant at first, locking himself into a repeating figure or indulging in rapid up-and-down scales that seemed exterior to the mood.

"Find the magic in the intervals," Haydn told him. She urged him to take hold of a figure of two or three notes, bend it this way and that against the regular rhythm, and then savor the effect of adding one more note. Hong promptly took off on a moody minor-key flight that sounded a little like the cello lines in Sibelius's "Swan of Tuonela" and, for a minute or two, became lost in music of his own invention.

He said at one point, "After a few sessions, I'm hearing things in a different way. I am feeling the nuances of each note in a more intense way. It's like when I was growing up-they'd say that you must chew each mouthful of rice seventy-two times to really taste the sweetness of the rice. There's something to that. Sometimes in classical music that's lost. This has taught me to be more appreciative of each note."

Hong deftly related all this back to the Brahms he had played that morning. He launched into an exceptionally free, rich rendition of the grand chromatic line that soars slowly through the orchestra at the beginning of the First Symphony, giving each note a slightly different color and weight. He stopped at the topmost B-flat, letting the note float out over the canyon.

To spend time with a creative-minded musician like Hong is to realize that the effect of a conductor on an orchestra is easily overstated: the L.A. Philharmonic is the sum of a hundred distinct personalities."
Excerpt from LA Times

"The iPod Philharmonic

Meet the young L.A. Phil players who mix rap 'n' Bach and find concerts to be an 'Idol'-like thrill.

By Chris Lee
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

December 9, 2007

'Nothing like I expected'

SPEAKING at a press event in London last month, Jamie Foxx recalled his first impression of the L.A. Phil's assistant principal cello player, Ben Hong, whom the Oscar-winner enlisted in August to help him "look like a cellist" while portraying a musical prodigy in the DreamWorks drama "The Soloist." The movie is based on Steve Lopez's columns in The Times about Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, who ended up on the streets of Los Angeles homeless and schizophrenic yet held tight to his music. Hong's playing will stand in for Foxx's on the film's soundtrack.

"The guy who shows up to show me how to play the cello is nothing like I expected," Foxx said. "I thought it would be a stiff guy. But my guy shows up on a Ninja motorcycle. He's a really fit, good-looking Asian dude, and he comes to my place with his cello strapped to his back."

Somewhat infamously, Hong, 38, does commute by motorcycle -- actually a limited edition MV Augusta F4-1000. And he's known around town for performing with an eclectic array of nonclassical performers, including L.A.'s daKah Hip Hop Orchestra and actor-comedian Taylor Negron, and is learning to play an African djembe drum in his spare time.

But it's Hong's gusto for improvisational jazz (he's learning with the help of violinist-singer-songwriter Lili Haydn) that distinguishes him most among his peers. "I've focused so much on interpreting the great composers' music for so long," said Hong, who appeared at a recent Casual Friday performance wearing a leather hoodie. "But there are moments when I want to express myself. So I'm learning to find my own voice and my own musical language through improvising.""
From LA Times,0,7947124.column?page=2&coll=la-home-headlines

"As lovers of music, 'We're brothers'

Steve Lopez
Points West

October 29, 2006

ALL last week, Nathaniel Anthony Ayers wore a T-shirt with Yo-Yo Ma's name scrawled on it, along with the date and location of the concert: October 27, Disney Hall.

We had tickets for that concert, and he couldn't wait. Los Angeles Philharmonic publicist Adam Crane had put in a request for Ma, the world-renowned cellist, to meet with Ayers after the performance. No guarantees, but maybe.

Either way, just watching Ma play would make for a special night for Ayers. Thirty-five years ago, he and Ma were young talents whose paths crossed briefly, when neither could have imagined the life that awaited.

The story begins Feb. 4, 1970, when Ayers, a restless 19-year-old, filled out and sent an application to the Juilliard School. As a freshman, he was doing very well in the music program at Ohio University, but he wanted a stiffer challenge.

The application, which I recently pulled from the school's archives on a trip to New York, asked Ayers to list his father's address.

"Unknown," he answered in black pen. His father had been out of the picture for nearly a decade, and Ayers had been raised by his mother, who ran a Cleveland beauty salon.

Asked about his sources of financial support, he answered: "Small portion from the Cleveland Scholarship Program Inc."

"Please list below the music you plan to play at your entrance exam audition," the application instructed. Dragonetti Concerto in A, the young Mr. Ayers wrote, along with the first movement of the Eccles Bass Sonata, unaccompanied.

To his surprise, Juilliard called almost instantly, and he flew "student standby" to New York. There, he stood before three professors with his string bass, reached inside for all he had and nailed the audition.

Ayers was offered a full scholarship and was told to finish up his freshman year of college and then catch a plane to the Aspen Music Festival, a sort of summer school for music students.

Aspen was a success, but also a little intimidating. The talent started at great and went up from there. Still, Ayers proved he could play, and it was a confident young man who settled into New York in the autumn of 1970 to study under Homer Mensch, a longtime bassist with the New York Philharmonic.

"This was Homer's room right here," Joe Russo, a former classmate, told me as he led me on a tour of Juilliard. Russo and Ayers were both in awe of the rich sound Mensch could coax out of the bass and overwhelmed by the intense pressure and competition at Juilliard.

"You were constantly comparing yourself to other musicians," Russo, now a conductor and composer in Connecticut, told me as we walked past the dozens of practice rooms on the fourth floor.

I looked into one, a windowless space the size of a prison cell, a place to test your limits in airless solitude. Russo said that when students walked down the dim, stifling hall, they could faintly hear classmates practicing in the bunkers. If someone was better than you on the same instrument, it could be a motivator or it could break you.

Once, Russo said, he was walking to class on the third floor when he heard a bassist practicing in an audition room. That had to be Mr. Mensch, he thought. What a gorgeous sound.

"But when I opened the door, it was Nathaniel." Ayers wowed teachers, as well. "A very musical performance and a most promising talent," one jury member wrote of Ayers' final exam audition at the end of the first year at Juilliard, giving him an A+.

THE following year, Ayers often bumped into a fellow student with a strange name who was thought to be from another universe.

Yo-Yo Ma. For a brief time, they played in the same Juilliard orchestra, although Ayers didn't think of Ma as a peer. Ma, though four years younger, was way out there on his own, a jaw-dropping talent. He was even a notch above another superstar cellist: Ayers' roommate Eugene Moye.

Moye would go on to great success as a soloist and orchestral performer in New York. Ma would become an icon. And Ayers? Even before he left Juilliard, his future was disintegrating. Classmates began to notice increasingly hostile and strange behavior from him, and some grew tired of his tirades about racist white America. Russo thought it must be Ayers' way of dealing with the pressure, which he assumed was even greater for Nathaniel, as one of the only African American students at Juilliard.

In reality, it was the beginning of a breakdown. In his third year at Juilliard, just a few months after more raves from teachers at his year-end audition, Ayers began hearing voices and getting wildly confused, suspicious and frightened. One night, he started speaking incoherently and took off his clothes in the apartment of a classmate. The friend called the police, and Ayers was taken by ambulance to Bellevue Hospital. Soon after, he left Juilliard for good.

In the 33 years since then, many of them spent living on the streets of Cleveland and Los Angeles, Ayers has often wondered about his former classmates, holding onto a connection to them through the music he continued playing. When I met him early in 2005, he played with purpose and joy each day near the Beethoven statue in Pershing Square, even though his violin was missing two strings.

Those of you who read those early columns may recall that for many months he resisted my efforts to talk him indoors. Then, early this year, he finally agreed to take an apartment, and he's been there ever since.

On Easter, he came to my house for brunch and played the violin, cello and piano, recited Shakespeare and Herman Hesse, sang in Italian, spoke French and had a grand time. When we went to a Dodgers game over the summer, he was out of his seat cheering half the time, having abandoned his hometown Indians.

Other days a chemical change comes over him and the darkness never lifts. He can be verbally abusive and menacing, he doesn't care to see a doctor let alone consider medication, he objects to being called schizophrenic and it seems as though the roller coaster ride will never end.

OUR relationship is deeper than ever, more demanding, more exasperating and more rewarding. When it gets exhausting, I remind myself that he's come a long way from two violin strings and a shopping cart, thanks in great part to the staff at Lamp, the mental health agency that has made a life and a home for him.

On Friday, Mr. Ayers - we've agreed to call each other mister, since he refuses to call me by my first name - was playing "Joy to the World" on his new trumpet at Lamp Safe Haven, which is near his apartment. Not everyone at Lamp is thrilled that Mr. Ayers has taken up a brass instrument, especially since the bugling is not always quite on key.

"Joy to the World" didn't sound half bad, though. I waited for it to end before reminding Ayers that I'd be by in a few hours to pick him up for Disney Hall. I also told him the good news. Yo-Yo Ma had sent word that he'd gladly receive Mr. Ayers after the concert.

When I arrived, he had cleaned up well and was wearing a Rite Aid polo shirt on which he had written my name and "Mr. Ma" with a black pen. He wore a red and blue necktie and leather jacket, and his hair was parted in the middle.

Before going to Disney Hall, I drove him over to Lamp Village to check out something that's been in the works for months. Lamp is clearing space for a music studio, and the artist in residence will be Mr. Ayers.

He's going to teach, take lessons, rhapsodize about the Beethoven statue in Pershing Square and, if I had to guess, recite Shakespeare there on occasion.

"This is really going to be something," Mr. Ayers said as he checked out the space and told me he couldn't wait to set up shop.

He talked about it all the way to Disney Hall, where we were greeted by Ben Hong, first assistant principal cellist with the L.A. Philharmonic and another former Juilliard student. Mr. Ayers had met Hong before, at one of several concerts he has now attended, so they spoke of music like old pals.

The concert featured just two musicians, Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax. "There he is," Ayers said when they took the stage to warm applause. "Mr. Yo-Yo Ma." The program was all Beethoven, except for a Mendelssohn encore, and Ayers followed along in a book of Beethoven compositions he had brought with him, running his finger over the notes. He also nudged me several times and whispered for me to take notice of Ma's bowing technique.

"Bravo," he called after each piece.

He laughed with delight at times, and by concert's end, he was of the opinion that it had all come off brilliantly.

HONG led us backstage, and as we waited for Ma, Mr. Ayers was nervous, giddy and chattering like a kid. But not for long.

Suddenly, Ma was in the room, grabbing Mr. Ayers' hand. "You're an amazing player," Mr. Ayers said bashfully.

"Did you like it?" Ma said. "I know you like Beethoven." Ma heard Ayers call him "Mr. Ma" and saw the name printed on the Rite Aid shirt. "First of all," he said, "I'm Yo-Yo. Not Mr. Ma." I could have told him to forget it, but I didn't want to intrude.

"I remember your hands from Juilliard," Ayers said, examining them again as if trying to decode the magic.

It wasn't clear whether Ma remembered his old classmate, but that wasn't important to Mr. Ayers. He told Ma of several specific Ma performances he recalled from their youth, and of bumping into him around school.

Ma reached around Mr. Ayers and pulled him close. "I just want to tell you," Ma said through a bear hug, "what it means to meet you. To meet somebody who really, really loves music. We're brothers."

In a rare moment, Mr. Ayers was practically speechless. Especially after Ma had one of his cellos brought in and told Mr. Ayers to go ahead and play it while he went off to greet some other fans.

Mr. Ayers held the cello in position but was frozen.

"This," he said, awed and bewildered, "is Yo-Yo Ma's cello." He stood there a few moments before fiddling just a bit and brightening at the deep and beautiful tone.

It was not easy to get him out of Disney Hall after that. He talked music with Hong, lingered in the hall, struck up a conversation with pianist Ax and admired photos of L.A. Philharmonic members, specifically the mug of his teacher, cellist Peter Snyder. He would have used his Beethoven sheet music as a pillow and slept on stage if I had let him.

Thinking back on his trajectory 35 years ago, before the fall, it's hard not to wonder what might have been for Mr. Ayers. But he has little time for self-pity or regret.

With several good instruments to play and a studio about to open, he's got work ahead of him. Whatever's been lost, and however isolating his long struggle has been, the music never left him.",1,1106391.column?coll=la-headlines-pe-california

"A place for Mr. Ayers to show off his gifts

Steve Lopez
Points West

December 31, 2006

He called before I arrived, making sure we were still on.

I'm on my way, I told him. See you in a few minutes.

My first stop was at the new studio, where I wanted to make sure the piano was in place, along with the upright bass.

Nathaniel Anthony Ayers suspected that his Christmas present involved the long-awaited opening of the studio. But he didn't know the piano would be in it, donated by a nurse from Santa Monica, along with the bass I had just bought from a jazz musician in Venice.

Mr. Ayers had not played a bass since he became ill while at the Juilliard School in New York 35 years ago. He switched to violin and cello, because they're easier to load onto the shopping carts he lived out of in his hometown of Cleveland and later Los Angeles.

Ben Hong, assistant principal cellist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and an admirer of Mr. Ayers, brought along some strings and a biography of Franz Schubert. We set the gifts on the piano, along with a photo of Mr. Ayers alongside cellist Yo-Yo Ma, his former classmate at Juilliard. The photo was taken backstage at Disney Hall in October, just before Ma embraced Mr. Ayers and told him his love of music made them brothers.

When the studio was in order, Hong and I walked the two blocks from Lamp Village on Crocker Street to the Lamp drop-in center on San Julian Street, where Mr. Ayers spends his days. Lamp houses, treats and supports people with severe mental illness on downtown L.A.'s skid row.

Mr. Ayers, 55, lives in a Lamp-managed apartment and has settled into a routine in which he sweeps the floor at the drop-in center, takes out the garbage, and plays violin, cello and trumpet in the courtyard. In my nearly two years with him, I've seen him at his most charming and I've seen the schizophrenia take hold like a tornado, throwing him into fits of anger and unpleasantness.

The staff at Lamp had agreed with me that since music is such powerful medicine for him, a studio seemed the next logical step in advancing his recovery, and Mr. Ayers was on board. He figured his Christmas present would be the grand opening, so he couldn't stand waiting for it to happen. He spotted us from the courtyard and was halfway across the street as we approached.

"Ben Hong!" he said, a bit stunned, as always, at the thought of a world-class musician taking time out for him.

Mr. Ayers wore a rain poncho because of earlier showers and carried his trumpet, a backpack and, for no particular reason, a punching bag. His khaki hat bore an image of Che Guevara, and he'd written my name and "Donald Duck Concert Hall" on the cap, with white-framed shades propped over the bill. Mr. Ayers gabbed all the way to Lamp Village, eager as a 6-year-old on Christmas Day. He talked music with Hong and sports with me, his mood as bright as the sun that had followed the morning storm.

It got only brighter when he set foot in the brand new studio.

"I can smell the paint," he said with a look of intoxication, feasting his eyes first on the piano and then the bass.

He checked the tuning on the piano and ran a few scales, then zipped open the bag for the bass and re-familiarized himself with an instrument that for 10 years was his life. He struggled with it at first and looked like a man trying to wrestle a bear. Hong told me the fingering system is different from the cello's and must be tough to adapt to. But all of a sudden, Mr. Ayers found his way.

"He's got the groove back," Hong said as Mr. Ayers' fingers danced and slid. "That's fantastic!"

Hong noted that the studio was roughly the size of the practice room on the fourth floor at Juilliard, where he spent many an hour as a student, as did Mr. Ayers, who at the time imagined a future so different from the one he landed in.

Anna McGuirk, who works in neonatal intensive care at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, arrived in time to watch Nathaniel play the Baldwin upright that was in her family for 40 years.

"An instrument has a soul," she said, and it needs nurturing. McGuirk - the daughter of a carpenter from Cleveland, where Mr. Ayers got his start in music - said she took lessons as a child from the nuns at St. Mark on Coeur d'Alene Avenue in Venice but was never very good at it. "Instruments need to get played, and now mine will. That means everything in the world to me."

There was just one problem:

Mr. Ayers (I began addressing him formally because he refuses to call me Steve) has claimed he doesn't know how to play piano. He took a few lessons as a kid, and a basic course was required of all students at Juilliard. He banged on my wife's piano one day at our house, but not long enough to prove much.

Here he was, though, seated at McGuirk's piano and running through scales, and he didn't sound like a novice to me. I looked at Hong, who was smiling the same smile I get from Peter Snyder, another L.A. Phil cellist who gives Mr. Ayers lessons and thinks he's a natural on any instrument.

In a sudden burst, Mr. Ayers brought full force down on the ivories. He was hunched over the keyboard like a virtuoso, putting his shoulders into it as he thunder-tested the walls and knocked dust off the roof.

"What is that?" I asked Hong, who practically had his hair blown back.

Franz Liszt, he said with a look of surprise. A Liszt piano concerto.

When Mr. Ayers came up for air, Hong invited him to be his guest, along with McGuirk and me, for a chamber music performance Wednesday at Disney Hall. Hong will be playing Schubert's Piano Trio in B-flat major with pianist Yefim Bronfman and violinist Bing Wang.

Casey Horan, Shannon Murray and Patricia Lopez, all from Lamp, joined in the dedication of the studio, along with LAPD Officer Deon Joseph, and Horan took pictures. Mr. Ayers will share the studio with other musicians at Lamp but take the title of artist in residence. He thanked Horan for building it, and she thanked him for inspiring it.

The studio is actually a temporary space. Lamp is in the middle of a remodeling project and plans to build a bigger room for Mr. Ayers and other musicians. Mr. Ayers has said his goal is to play, take lessons and perhaps teach. He wants to be what he calls a music therapist, helping others find the peace music brings him.

In the interest of full disclosure, my editors have asked me to report that I'm nearing completion of a book on my two years with Mr. Ayers and the impact we've had on each other's lives. The book and my newspaper columns have been optioned by a movie studio that has also bought rights from Mr. Ayers.

I've used some of my proceeds to pay his legal fees and other costs, and to make donations to Lamp. I get frequent queries from readers wanting to know how to contribute to Mr. Ayers' welfare, as well as to the new studio, and such questions can be answered at

Those who know about my book occasionally ask how it will end. I'm not sure yet, but I do know that from Mr. Ayers - who for a solid year resisted attempts by me and Lamp to get him off the street - I've learned patience and trust. More than ever, I count the health of loved ones a blessing, and I have a better appreciation of music and the healing properties of art.

I think the way this year has ended might make a good ending for the book. As I left the studio, I looked back through the window and briefly watched Mr. Ayers in his sanctuary, spirit intact, a year of new possibilities before him"