Yo-Yo Ma and the Bach cello suites: Familiar, but certainly not routine

Sarah L. Voisin - Yo-Yo Ma and his wife Jill Horner arrive at the State Department dinner for The Kennedy Center Honors on Dec. 1, 2012.

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Seeing and hearing Yo-Yo Ma play the Bach cello suites is an act of cultural tourism. I was going to equate it with visiting Chartres, but it’s not quite that monumental — Chartres might be the equivalent of, say, hearing Daniel Barenboim play all the Beethoven sonatas (yet again). The six Bach suites take up only one or two evenings; playing the first three of them, plus accompanying works, as Ma did at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Monday night, occupies no more than two hours. This is not to disparage them, and certainly not to postulate length as a measure of quality: simply to say that Ma has played them so often they are something of a touchstone, not only for him but for most music-lovers, and so experiencing him playing them could be akin to ticking something off a bucket list.

There was certainly nothing routine about Ma’s performance of the first three suites, the focus of Monday’s concert. Familiar though they are to him, he flung himself into the playing, engaging with the music and the audience, the very opposite of so many star players who feel, by their fifth or sixth decade in front of the public, that they can pull back a little, even sometimes phone it in. Ma can’t help playing with ease and fluidity, but he was never on autopilot Monday. Perhaps he had to dig a little deeper to find the freshness in his performance: At least there was a lot of digging — bow digs, slight tempo stretches, extra-earthy rusticity in some of the dance movements. But the freshness was always there.

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It’s safe to say that few people came specifically to hear the three companion pieces that prefaced the suites, but they provided real freshness and interest. The first two were offered as preludes to the first two suites: a simple folk-like tune by the late Turkish composer Ahmed Adnan Saygun, and an appealing, slightly wistful piece of Americana by Mark O’Connor (a frequent Ma collaborator), both playing off the folk elements and sometimes apparent simplicity of the Bach suites.

After the intermission, before the third suite, Ma played the early Cello Sonata written in the 1950s by a 26-year-old George Crumb, a work that foreshadows the engaging quirkiness of Crumb’s best-known later works while presenting the kind of eager structural rigors and challenges that often accompany early work by very talented composers. (I was reminded of Britten’s first string quartet, written a decade earlier.) In contrast to the first two new works, this one was a more self-conscious Piece of Composition, with passages of intricate fingering and piquant chord shifts, and it was a focal point of the evening.

The three works gave Ma a chance to present himself in conversation with the Bach suites, looking at traces of their legacy manifested by other composers through the years. It was certainly a thoughtful discussion: a monologue, staged in a single chair set up in front of a sold-out house. The Washington Performing Arts Society even sold seats on the stage, as well as in the choir balconies. Ma is one of the few artists around these days who can both fill the hall like that and make the resulting experience seem intimate for the thousands of people who attend.

Thoughtful though he was, and superb as the playing was, Ma couldn’t quite project the illusion that this performance was a vital part of his artistic vision. It wasn’t part of a tour, or a project, or a new passion; just a program he’s worked out that nicely showcases a favorite artist in some of his best-loved and most familiar repertory without entirely locking him into traditional paths.

There’s nothing wrong with this. But Ma has such wide-ranging interests that he has much more to offer than a concert of standbys. One wonders why WPAS was content to offer it, rather than seeking to present something newer and more challenging. WPAS has seemed increasingly satisfied to maintain the status quo, focusing in recent years more on big names and familiar repertory than on the cutting edge. Ma happens to represent both sides of the equation; it would be nice if WPAS, which is looking ahead toward a change in leadership after the impending departure of Neale Perl, could put a little more energy into exploring the latter.

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