From Intro to Music Criticism:
He is on a “continual search for new ways to communicate with audiences,” according to his biography. From another artist, that statement might sound like a platitude, but coming from Yo-Yo Ma it feels genuine. Both he and his playing are sincere, heartfelt, embracing, no matter the genre or piece. On Nov. 20 in a sold-out Finney Chapel (and live-streamed to Warner Concert Hall, where I viewed the concert), pianist Kathryn Stott joined Ma as he communicated his simple love of music in a concert of wide-ranging repertoire.
The Suite Italienne consists of six transcribed movements of the ballet Pulcinella (1920), which twists Baroque melodies and forms through Stavinsky’s angular idiom. Ma and Stott brought incisive articulations and joyful energy to the off-kilter rhythms, demonstrating their impressive technique. There was a wonderful moment in the “Aria” where the music moved from slow stasis into an erratic dance with a violent glissando from Ma. The “Minuetto e finale” was gloriously frenetic and effortlessly mercurial as it hopped between moods.
Ma and Stott then detoured from Italy to South America. This is familiar territory for both of them, as they have recorded two CDs focusing on tango and music from Brazil. In Finney, they played three arrangements of pieces without pause. Villa-Lobos’s ominous and soulful Alma Brasileira, originally for solo piano, led into Piazzolla’s wailing Oblivion. Ma shrieked and sobbed on his cello, absorbed in Piazzolla’s smoky music. The set ended with Camargo Guarnieri’s Dansa Negra. a limping dance with a bland melody.
Falla’s 7 Canciones Populares Españolas are arrangements of Spanish folk songs surrounded by brilliant figuration and accompaniments. The tunes are by turn sultry, whirling, and ecstatic. It’s the kind of music that draws one’s vision to the performers’ hands, to see their virtuosic contortions and leaps. Stott especially shone, with fleet hand-crossings, rapid repeated notes and hammered chords, while Ma plucked chords and slid up and down the neck of his cello.
After intermission there was a dramatic change in tone. Messiaen’s “Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus,” from the Quartet for the End of Time, is a stunningly beautiful piece, a transcendent experience that causes time to stop. Unfortunately Stott’s strange technique was disrupting, her stiff arms shooting up from the piano as if they were spring-loaded, creating a percussive, sometimes uneven sound that corrupted the reverential atmosphere. Yet Ma’s playing was gorgeous as he sung an endless melody, building to a fervid climax then suddenly dropping to self-reflective peace. His last note quivered eternally in the air, a glowing silver thread.
The last work on the program was Brahms’s Sonata No. 3 in d minor, op. 108 for violin. Ma impressively transferred the violin part to his cello, often playing high up in his instrument’s range. He alternated between conjuring translucent shadows and lacerating with his bow.
Stott and Ma offered three encores: Elgar’s sweet Salut d’amour, the jazzy “Cristal” by Cesar Camargo Mariano, and Saint-Säens’s tender “The Swan.”