Yo-Yo Ma arrives at the Gardner's brand-new Calderwood Hall, entourage in tow. As he walks in, followed by his cello-bearer, the Criers are trying to play it cool, but they're freaking out. "It's not fashionable among classical musicians to be big Yo-Yo Ma fans," Irons says later. "But you know how couples have, like, a celebrity list? Like, 'Okay, you can go sleep with Natalie Portman and it will be okay?'" Ma is on A Far Cry's celebrity list.

AFC has been the orchestra in residence at the Gardner Museum since 2009. Scott Nickrenz, the Gardner music director, adopted them "because I think they're fabulous," he says, but also because they were the perfect size for the jewel-box concert hall he was building — the one that they'll be inaugurating tonight.

Asked to describe the orchestra, Nickrenz hesitates. Then he says, "I remember seeing the Colla Marionette Company from Milan. They became almost a cult, the group, behind the scenes, making these wooden inanimate objects come to life. It wasn't just people who were very good at puppeteering; it was the way they created this . . . magic. This group [A Far Cry] has a little of that about them, an aura. A sense that there's another dimension."

Ma doesn't bother to sit down as the orchestra starts playing; instead he walks around the hall, beaming at everyone, carrying his cello in one hand. He tickles Nickrenz's knees, peers up at the ceiling.

Then it's his cue, and he turns toward the orchestra and rips off those arpeggios, standing, resting the cello against his body, as casually and joyfully as he might turn to wave at an old friend.

This gives Nickrenz an idea. Because of the hall's perfectly symmetrical acoustics and its in-the-round design, he tells the group, it doesn't matter whether Ma is facing out toward the audience or in toward the orchestra; the sound of his cello will be just as clear either way.

There are audible gasps of delight from the musicians.

And so that's how they perform that night, to an audience of glittering museum sponsors: in a circle, as equals, looking at each other, the way a string quartet plays when they're in private. The orchestra and Ma make their inanimate wooden instruments come to life; the slow movement unfolds infinitely, and then they take the daredevil last movement at breakneck speed— racing to the end, breathless, together.

Afterward in the green room, when a very fine whiskey is being passed around and everyone is still dazzled and Ma and Nickrenz toast the hall and the orchestra and then look at each other and lean in slowly and kiss each other tenderly on the mouth, some of the players wonder:

Did that all really just happen?

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