Cellist Yo-Yo Ma is not simply a virtuoso cellist—he is a celebrity equally at home performing concertos with major orchestras as he is appearing on television or recording sound tracks for blockbuster films. His Silk Road project, a celebrated intercultural musical mission that integrates classical and popular music from eastern and western cultures, has produced a shelf of groundbreaking recordings.
From his own 75 recordings, he has won 15 Grammy Awards, and has been awarded the National Medal of Arts (2001), the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2011), and the Kennedy Center Honors (2012).
So it was no surprise that the Jacobs Music Center’s Copley Symphony Hall was sold out for the Yo-Yo Ma recital Wednesday (March 12) sponsored by the La Jolla Music Society. Among the 2200 plus audience members, I would love to know how many had attended a cello recital before Wednesday night.
Like those who flocked to see the great Caruso or Horowitz or Heifitz, they came to be in the presence of a superstar, and they were not disappointed.
Ma opened with Igor Stravinsky’s “Suite Italienne” for cello and piano, which showcased Ma’s luxurious, floating cantilena style in the slow movements and his immaculately controlled dramatic flourish in the bustling, extroverted dances. The composer refashioned sections of his neo-classical ballet Pulcinella to create this cello suite for the great cellist of the last century Gregor Piatigorsky, and Ma confirmed his right to give a gold-standard account of this work.
Moving from the European classical tradition, Ma offered three South American popular dances in sophisticated arrangements for cello and piano that captured the sensual, unrestrained ethos of urban street life in that hemisphere. Heitor Villa-Lobos’ “Alma Brasiliera,” an engagingly dark ballad, gave Ma and his accompanist Kathryn Stott equal opportunity to savor its haunting themes and then fuse them in a rhapsodic finale. Even more compelling was Astor Piazolla’s “Oblivion,” a slow tango more sultry and dangerous than “Alma Brasiliera,” and Camargo Guarnieri’s “Dansa Negra” explored a more playful approach to Brazilian folk traditions.
Like great popular artists such as Frank Sinatra or Sarah Vaugh, both Ma and Stott knew how to inflect a phrase to bring out its latent emotional content and immediately draw the listener into their intimate confidence.[php snippet=1]
Transcribing Manuel De Falla’s song cycle “Seven Popular Spanish Songs” for cello proved a bit of a gamble, and I’m not certain Ma won. The texts of these heart-rending songs cry out for the human voice, and while an instrument can remind us what these songs sound like and suggest what they mean, only the voice can tell us. But Stott’s masterful account of De Falla’s daunting piano accompaniments with their intricate keyboard simulations of complex guitar techniques was astounding.
Ma’s account of the fifth movement of Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” was nothing less than transcendent, sonic concentration raised to an almost frightening degree. Unfortunately, the audience took this serene meditation as an opportunity for a coughing chorus and paper-rustling marathon.
Johannes Brahms wrote two splendid cello sonatas, but Ma is evidently tired of playing them, so he appropriated the composer’s last Violin Sonata in D Minor, Op. 108, in an arrangement for cello. Like the counterpoint of J. S. Bach, Brahms’ musical message is not dependent on instrumentation, so we enjoyed the composer’s communication through Ma’s uncompromising Apollonian vision. Only once in a while did I miss the violin’s gleaming upper register.
Ma played three encores: Elgar’s “Salut d’Amour,” Cesar Camargo Mariano’s “Cristal,” and Saint-Saens’ evergreen “The Swan” from The Carnival of Animals.