Yo-Yo Ma, Kathryn Stott offer solace in their performance of ‘Songs of Comfort and Hope’

Photo of Yo Yo Ma
Mark Mann/Courtesy

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On Nov. 14, Yo-Yo Ma followed Kathryn Stott onto the stage at the National Kaohsiung Center for the Arts (Weiwuying) Concert Hall in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Him: a blue three-ply surgical mask. Her: a black mask studded with glittering rhinestones. Theirs is a long, successful musical partnership — it’s been 35 years since Ma and Stott first began collaborating. Two of their albums have since won Grammy Awards for Best Classical Crossover Album. 

At Weiwuying, the two bow, take their seats and remove their masks. The night’s program was designed by Stott — selections from Ma and Stott’s upcoming album, Songs of Comfort and Hope, as well as other beloved musical miniatures, woven into a seamless medley. Songs of Comfort and Hope sprang from Ma’s self-shot, impromptu #SongsofComfort videos, which he began sharing during the first days of the COVID-19 lockdown. Songs of Comfort and Hope includes 21 new recordings, ranging from international folk songs to jazz standards to canonical western classical. 

The Wiewuying concert offered a bit more dimension to the highly anticipated recordings. That night, Pulitzer Prize-winning musician Caroline Shaw’s arrangement of the American folk melody “Shenandoah” was performed alongside Manuel de Falla’s “Siete canciones populares españolas (“Seven Popular Spanish Songs”) and Astor Piazzolla’s “Le Grand Tango.” On the album, however, “Shenandoah” will not be joined by the de Falla or the tango. Instead, it will be debuted with “Over the Rainbow” from “The Wizard of Oz” and Francis Poulenc’s “Les Chemins de l’Amour” (“The Pathways of Love”). 

The resulting effect of the performance is a pastoral, nostalgic delivery of what it promised — comfort. Ma’s signature posture grants a large part of the visual comfort here; he reclined in his chair with his eyes closed as his bow whizzed between board and bridge, fingers flurrying and plucking. His brow sometimes furrowed, sometimes resolved, and the music emanated from his instrument with its own agency. 

He and Stott galloped through the extensive, 23-piece program with only brief pauses and seamlessly hopped from Schumann’s 19th century romanticism to an Australian “bush ballad.” One particularly memorable highlight came after the intermission: “Rain Falling from the Roof (檐头雨)” by Wu Tong, arranged by Li Xun and Ding Doudou. Ma’s gentle pizzicato droplets lay onto Stott’s careful accompaniment, producing a Satie-like peace. 

“Rain Falling from the Roof” was Tong’s artistic response to the pandemic. As the program notes offered, Tong was reading a Northern Song dynasty story during a rainstorm when inspiration struck. The story goes as such: “A novice monk asks a renowned Zen master about the meaning of Buddhism,” the program explained. “The master points to the raindrops falling from the eaves of a roof. The novice monk, after being perplexed for a long time, suddenly experiences an epiphany.” 

In an exclusive pre-concert conversation between Ma and Cal Performances executive and artistic director Jeremy Geffen, Ma said, “I think one of the things that I so love playing with you — and yesterday was no exception — (is) that there’s this kind of trust that goes on, that when we’re on stage, it’s literally having a conversation and not delivering some product we’ve agreed on. And so it’s a living conversation. I think that’s almost the only reason I love to do music.” 

Trust is there — in the balance of bow and pedal, pluck and staccato, in every tonal shift that flows down those familiar routes of partnered conversation. Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott stunned with genuine cultural connection, unmasked from the impenetrable highbrow.

A video stream of this concert was presented by Cal Performances and will be available on demand for free to all registered UC Berkeley students until 11:59pm PST Dec. 12 at https://calperformances.org/at-home/.

Contact Katherine Chen at [email protected]. Tweet her at @spaghettybaby.