The world’s pre-eminent cellist played a program of Bach suites and folk-based works at Meany Hall on Tuesday night that, writes critic Melinda Bargreen, was both “powerfully authoritative” and “infinitely subtle.”
An empty stage, a lone chair and Yo-Yo Ma emerging from the wings with his cello.
This is a recipe for concert bliss, as a lucky audience discovered Tuesday evening in Meany Theater, when the world’s pre-eminent cellist arrived for a solo recital. Ma’s program, ingeniously pairing Bach cello suites with folk-based works, lifted the listeners into a world of infinitely malleable and beautiful sound. It was the simplest and most direct kind of communication: One man playing his heart out on the stage, drawing the most bewitching music out of that sublime wooden box.
The program emphasized the interconnected nature of the works by juxtaposing them without the interruption of applause. Ma adroitly followed the subtle, wistful opening Partita No. 1 of Turkish composer Ahmet Adnan Saygun with Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major. Then came another, similar pairing: Mark O’Connor’s folk-themed “Appalachia Waltz” and the second of the Bach suites (D Minor). After intermission came the final pair: Zhao Jiping’s “Summer in the High Grassland” and the last of the Bach suites (No. 6 in D Major).
Woven into this program were decades of Ma’s musical reach into several worlds. He has spent most of his 60 years with the Bach suites, reinterpreting them with artists in other genres (such as choreographer Mark Morris) in a landmark “Inspired by Bach” film series. He has devoted decades to his Silk Road Project, touring and recording with international virtuosi (including composer Zhao Jiping) and ethnic music for instruments of many cultures. Both the Bach and Silk Road threads were combined in what felt like a very personal program.
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Powerfully authoritative and infinitely subtle, Ma’s performance brought the music to life in all its variety: exultant, mournful, dying, reborn. He can draw a dynamic range and an array of sound qualities from the cello that boggle description. Nothing ever sounds forced; everything sounds as natural as breathing. On a technical level, Ma’s bow control is remarkable — the final note of the Prelude in the Suite No. 2 was a perfectly controlled decrescendo that continued to the very tip of the bow. His tonal variety extends from the merest thread of sound to a limpid smoothness and powerful declamatory passages; the harmonics in the Jiping finale were exquisite.
Ma makes you think. After an explosion of virtuosity in the Prelude of the Suite No. 6, he played an Allemande movement that was the most subtle, ruminative interior monologue. Listening to this felt like eavesdropping on private thoughts.
The ovation that came at the end of the final Bach suite was met by a single encore: a Catalan folk song made famous by the great Pablo Casals (1876-1973), who regularly played “Song of the Birds” as a symbol of Catalan freedom. It was Casals, Ma reminded us, who brought the Bach suites into our own time by championing these works. “We owe a great debt to Casals,” Ma concluded.
Most recitalists like to end a concert with an encore that essentially says: “See how well I play?” Ma concluded his recital with a respectful nod to a great predecessor. For him, ego is not the issue: It’s all about the music.