Concert Review: Cellist Yo-Yo Ma Delivers a Magical Evening

Heralded cellist Yo-Yo Ma has played with several distinguished pianists over the years, but none (are) better than Kathryn Stott.

Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott. Photo: Todd Rosenberg.

Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott. They are a thrilling musical duo. Photo: Todd Rosenberg.

By Susan Miron

Yo-Yo Ma has become ubiquitous at big moments in American history and culture. It is hard for many to remember when he wasn’t a world-wide symbol of musical excellence and adventure. A statesman with a cello, he has played for eight presidents, for those who lost loved ones in large-scale disasters, and for the closest thing we have to state funerals. His winning smile, endless musical curiosity, and immense gifts have won him countless lifelong fans, starting with those who first got to know him on Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood back in the mid-’80s, before he was handed a boatload of important prizes. Recently, he was named a UN Messenger of Peace.

Like many highly esteemed cellists, Ma soon tired of the same small repertoire for solo cello. His musical peregrinations have taken him from the Silk Road Ensemble to the Goat Rodeo sessions, including collaborations with Baroque musicians, tango musicians, James Taylor, Bobby McFerrin, the Mark Morris Dance Group, and, of course, the usual classical music superstars. He has been a fixture in Boston since graduating Harvard University, appearing every winter with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and every summer at Tanglewood. He has been presented thirty (!) times in 30 years by the Celebrity Series of Boston, who was behind his appearance on Friday night. Needless to say, he packs the hall each time.

The recital Ma played with his longtime pianist Kathryn Stott (it was the sixth time the duo has appeared on the Celebrity Series) was the sort of program a cellist might choose for his/her first venture out of the standard repertoire. All but one piece, Olivier Messiaen’s “Louange a l’Éternité de Jesus” from Quartet for the End of Time, was written for another instrument. Most of the program was made up of well-known and well-loved music.

Igor Stravinsky’s admired Suite Italienne is almost as famous for its origins (mistaken origins, that is) as for its scrumptious melodies, which were once thought to have been penned by the Baroque composer Pergolesi. The ballet, Pulcinella, from which the Suite was taken, premiered in Paris in 1920 courtesy of the Ballets Russes under Serge Diaghilev, choreography by Leonid Massin, Ernest Ansermet conducting. Diaghilev suggested arranging the music (then thought to be by Pergolesi) to Stravinsky, who ending up arranging tunes from the ballet suite several times. (He knew a good thing when he heard one.) Adaptations for cello and piano were then made by cellist Gregor Piatagorsky, who came up with an arrangement for violin and piano in 1933. Heifetz and Piatagorsky then made an arrangement for violin and cello. This was ballet music with legs.

Ma has played with several distinguished pianists over the years but none (are) better than Stott. As a duo, they were quite thrilling. She plays with sparkle, dazzling rhythm, and myriad colors. Each played the five movements of Suite Italienne with energy and the kind of virtuosity that makes a listener beam with pleasure.

Three pieces – all arrangements – from South America followed. “Alma Brasileira” by Heitor Villa-Lobos was very rhythmic and fun with an undercurrent of sadness. “Dansa Negra” by Camarago Guarniere, originally written for piano, exudes pure charm, its melody flirting with jazz. But the best piece on the first half was the gorgeous “Oblivion” by the beloved Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla, whom Ma has recorded. One associates Ma with sunniness, but this is, to my ears, one of the saddest pieces ever, and one of the most haunting. He and Stott played this gem, written for the 1984 film Enrico IV, wonderfully. It’s one of those pieces that has been played on every imaginable instrument, including harp, but I hazard that it has rarely been performed more hauntingly than on Friday night.

The first half ended with Manuel de Falla’s “Siete Canciones Populares Españoles,” another huge hit, either in its arrangement for violin and viola or for cello and piano. These seven pieces were initially art song arrangements of popular folk songs found in various areas of Spain, but it seems to be the case that they are appearing more often in string recitals than voice concerts. Completed in 1914, the piece fits the cello so well that it is hard to imagine it being performed on another instrument. It ingeniously captures the moods of Spain, achingly so in the simple, gorgeous lullaby “Nana.” It’s hard not to love this piece, especially when played as evocatively as it was by Ma and Stott.

The two stayed on stage, unfussily, during the entire first half. After intermission, Ma started his almost inaudible solo line in the Messiaen before the audience caught on to what he was doing. The cello solo (with piano) was taken from Quartet from the End of Time, written and premiered in the winter of 1940-41 when Messiaen was held captive in a German POW camp in Silesia. Composed for the instruments played by Messiaen’s fellow prisoners – piano, clarinet, violin, and cello – the piece consists of eight wrenching movements (Ma and Stott played the fifth movement) that last a bit less than an hour. Ma’s performance was infused with tragedy, human suffering channeled through the cello. For all his sunny disposition, Ma performs melancholic, lachrymose music with great persuasiveness, even a kind of sad flair. This was a spectacular performance by Ma, and Stott followed by a similarly spectacular rendition of Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Opus 108 by Johannes Brahms, originally written for violin and piano.

Do you think the audience would let Ma go without a few encores? Riots would have broken out. Ma and Stott played three, Elgar’s charming Salut d Amor, Mariano’s Cristal, and the ever-popular cello solo from Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals.

Ma is soon to receive an honor I suspect will thrill him. It’s the first Fred Rogers Legacy Award, named for Ma’s friend, on whose TV program he made two memorable appearances. As the evening ended, happily waving good-byes to the audience, MA reminded me of both the kindness and the assurance projected by Mr. Rogers. The world felt gentle and safe, at least until the lights came back on.

Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. She is part of the Celtic harp and storytelling duo A Bard’s Feast with renowned storyteller Norah Dooley and plays the Celtic harp at the Cancer Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital.

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