Yo-Yo Ma graces Zellerbach

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What does one expect from a Yo-Yo Ma concert? Most likely a classy experience. It goes without saying that it takes a cultivated ear to find most classical music compelling. The experience could easily be underwhelming — after all, what is a child prodigy when he is an adult? Thursday night’s concert at Zellerbach was not disappointing in the least, however, as Ma’s performance did not only boast the class of the world’s premier cello-playing talent but also offered an uncommon intensity and immediacy. There was jumping off of seats, sweat dripping from foreheads, fingers being plucked from piano keys at hummingbird speeds, cello bow strings ripped off from pure attrition and the kind of tension seldom seen in concert.

Performing with renowned British pianist Kathryn Stott for their second Cal Performances concert together at Zellerbach Hall, Ma’s playing was set off brilliantly by the accompaniment of Stott’s arpeggiated sweeps and emphatic chords. Since meeting Yo-Yo Ma in 1978, when she returned to her rented flat finding “a Chinese man in his underpants playing the cello” (Ma did not realize someone else was sharing the flat), Stott has been a close collaborator with Ma, winning Grammys with recordings like “Soul of the Tango” and “Obrigado Brazil” and touring with the cellist. Their musical reciprocity is clear. The thin wedge of cello sounds interlocked with the staircase percussiveness of piano notes to produce a stunning musical duotone.

Starting the night with Igor Stravinsky’s “Suite Italienne”, the sixth movement of the 1919 Neo-Classical ballet “Pulcinella” and ending it with Johannes Brahms’ Sonata No. 3 in D Minor, Ma and Stott framed the concert with elegant European classicism. Between these displays of stately poise, the pair played several South American pieces that highlight Ma’s eclectic repertoire, which includes such disparate experimentations as American bluegrass, oriental Chinese and traditional African melodies. The concert might have offered a greater look at the grandiose versatility of Ma’s music had it included more of these less conventional sounds, but for a night of classicism, the arrangements played successfully ran the gamut of emotions. The cello, with its rich range, was played with a sensuality that brought to mind Man Ray’s 1924 “Le Violon d’Ingres,” that ever famous photograph of the female muse whose curved back evokes the very instrument Ma plays as though struck by a muse.

Watching such a talented artist at work, one wonders if Ma just knows performance like the back of his hand or if he genuinely feels the music. It is probably the latter that accounts for the vivacity with which he plays, but the former is undoubtedly true as well. Having played for eight United States presidents, starting with a performance for President Eisenhower at the tender age of seven, Ma is no stranger to recognition.

In spite of being accustomed to performing for large audiences as well as winning Grammys and a slew of other honors, Ma’s performance on Thursday night made it clear that his craft has not fallen even slightly into the perfunctory or tired. A genuinely captivating performer, Ma’s motions swept from delicate long notes to impassioned bariolages and to playful taps of the bow. His very facial expressions were indicative of the wide spectrum of feelings that gripped him throughout. At the end of one song, when he drew the bow across the strings with the softest graze and then back across again, piercing the silence with a single note — that moment and the ensuing release was the one in which the audience awoke from something truly mesmerizing.