Friday, November 22, 2013


Finney Chapel
November 20

An opportunity to watch a virtuoso at work.

Superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma titled his latest Silk Road Ensemble release A Playlist Without Borders, reflecting the group’s international makeup and focus. That would also have been an appropriate title for his recital in Oberlin on Wednesday night, which covered a remarkable musical and geographic range, from 19th-century European Romanticism to modern Latin dance music. With longtime piano accompanist Kathryn Stott providing driving rhythms and tasty embellishment, Ma held a packed house spellbound.

Part of the attraction was the chemistry between the two players, who have been collaborating for nearly 30 years. They seem to communicate by telepathy, rarely glancing at each other while nailing fancy breaks, unusual timing and flashy finishes with razor-sharp precision. Their duets have a strong organic feel, with emotional passages swelling in tandem, or one instrument dropping back while the other articulates a sensitive line or inventive phrasing.

And they don’t need a single note of warm-up. From the opening bars of Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne, their sound was perfectly clean and well-defined, seamless in construction and elegant in execution. Each of the five movements had a distinctly different character, with Ma giving the music a lyrical quality – not a term one typically uses to describe Stravinsky. Light and playful in the duo’s spirited treatment, the suite made a lively, engaging opener.

Ma dug into his 2003 Obrigado Brazil album for a medley of three Latin songs, starting with Villa-Lobos’ “Alma Brasileira,” which featured Stott on lead. He brought dark emotional hues to Piazzolla’s “Oblivion,” then played Camargo Guarnieri’s “Dansa Negra” as a dialogue with Stott, who set a snappy dance floor pace with rolling barrelhouse rhythms.

The mix of elements in de Falla’s Siete Canciones Populares Españolas (Seven Spanish Folk Songs) was rendered with exceptional clarity. Stott set a tone of passionate intensity that Ma matched at times, or played against with incredibly fine, delicate lines suggesting the French impressionist influence. The rich array of moods and colors they created culminated in a smart, swirling treatment of a flamenco number, “Polo.”

Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time), a seminal work in the chamber repertoire, includes a movement for cello and piano, “Louange à l'Éternité de Jésus” (In Praise of the Eternity of Jesus). Ma was brilliant in bringing its earthly anguish and spiritual yearning to life, holding long vibrato lines with his head tilted back and eyes closed, like a man in a trance. Which he apparently was. After drawing the piece to a whisper finish, he sat silent for almost a minute. Some musicians let the final notes reverberate and fade away for dramatic effect. But in this case it seemed Ma couldn’t move until his spirit returned from a faraway place to reinhabit his body.

After all those exotic excursions, it felt almost mundane to return to the mainstream canon for the closing work, Brahms’ Sonata No. 3. Ma and Stott gave it a brisk, animated reading, pumping some fresh energy into a staid classic. Ma showed masterful control of his instrument, particularly in a piece that was written for violin and piano. Playing the string part on cello is difficult enough; making it look easy is the work of a virtuoso.

Yo-Yo Ma makes everything he touches look easy, one of the reasons he occupies such a prominent and respected niche in the classical music world. Another is his open-heartedness and unfailing generosity. He came back for three encores after this performance – Elgar’s sweet Salut D’Amour, “Cristal” from the Obrigado Brazil album, and Saint-Saëns’ The Swan, a sure crowd-pleaser. Audiences in Oberlin like to show their approval with their feet as well as their hands, so there was plenty of stamping accompanying the final rounds of applause.

This was the third time Ma performed in northeast Ohio over the past year, though the first in a chamber setting that gave the audience a close-up opportunity to watch him work. He throws himself completely into the music, playing every piece with a brilliant combination of technical finesse and double expression –the feeling he puts into the music, and the emotions on his face. At one point during the Oberlin recital, he looked ready to burst into tears.

That kind of naked emotional honesty establishes a powerful bond with the audience, and makes Ma’s departing smiles and goodbye waves seem real rather than forced. No one – not even the elderly gentleman sitting next to this critic who fell asleep – leaves his concerts unhappy.

For more on Yo-Yo Ma:

For more on Kathryn Stott:

Photo: Roger Mastroianni

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