The cellist played Schumann’s concerto as if “communing with the spirit of Schumann himself,” writes reviewer Melinda Bargreen of Yo-Yo Ma’s performance at Benaroya Hall on Sunday.

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Benaroya Hall was packed to the rafters for Sunday’s long-sold-out Seattle Symphony concert featuring superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma, when conductor Ludovic Morlot came onstage at the opening of the program.

“As you know, Yo-Yo Ma is scheduled to play in the second half of the concert,” Morlot announced from the stage.

There was a pause. 2,500 people collectively held their breath. Had Ma … canceled?

“And he is still scheduled to play in the second half,” Morlot teasingly added, going on to announce a minor change in the order of the first half (Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella” Suite would now precede Ravel’s “Mother Goose” Suite, instead of the other way around).

Breathing resumed. So did the music, and very competently too, with some beautiful solo work from the principal winds, but many in the audience probably would not have cared about the order or even the content of the first half when they had an impending date with Yo-Yo Ma.

He arrived after intermission to play the Schumann Cello Concerto, leaning back with his cello and closing his eyes, as if communing with the spirit of Schumann himself. It’s always hard to describe Ma’s playing, which blends the utmost technical virtuosity with something even more amazing: the sense that he has entered a realm inaccessible to most of us, and is bringing the most incredible music back with him.

He seems to tap into some transcendent force, producing tones of every conceivable color with spectacular control. Every note counts, whether it is sharply accented or eased into the world with a mere breath from the bow. Nothing sounds routine; notes and phrases of unexpected sudden beauty take your breath away. Seldom has the Schumann Concerto sounded so arresting and so vital.

In a way that many soloists do not, Ma also communes with his fellow orchestral musicians with encouraging and appreciative glances, reminding the listeners that a great concerto performance is a joint effort rather than just a star turn. He particularly acknowledged the contributions of the afternoon’s principal cellist, Meeka Quan DiLorenzo, whose duet passages with the soloist were beautifully played. With Morlot, too, Ma found a supportive rapport in an unhurried interpretation that let the solo cello sing.

After a performance like that, an encore is an absolute must, and Ma returned to the stage for two of them: the exquisitely simple “Appalachia Waltz” from his earlier collaborations with composer Mark O’Connor, and a nod to one of the most famous works in Ma’s repertoire: Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suites (the Bourrées from the Suite No. 3 in C Major).

What a gift Ma has — and what a gift he gave his Seattle audience.