Yo-Yo Ma in Recital: Intimate Music in Front of Thousands

By Daniel Ginsberg
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Presenting a superstar string player like cellist Yo-Yo Ma requires a large hall to ensure as large an audience as possible. Yet a cello recital, especially one as refined as one by Ma, is essentially chamber music -- and it is called chamber music for a reason. That subtle coloration of the strings, those slight but significant inflections, are best heard in more intimate spaces. The dilemma: One can hear the artist in full nuance and glory but only at the cost of blocking out audiences.

On Monday night the Washington Performing Arts Society could not square that circle, presenting Ma and his superb partner, British pianist Kathryn Stott, in the cavernous Kennedy Center Concert Hall. Ma's gorgeous Stradivarius cello -- the priceless "Davidov" -- emitted silvery ribbons in a wonderfully varied program. Whether in the genial music of Schubert or the lush pulses of C¿sar Franck, Ma displayed innate musicianship and imperial technique.

But, as expected, what you got was something akin to examining a museum masterpiece from afar. The large space swallowed Ma's exquisitely rounded, immaculately crafted sound, creating an unwelcome sense of distance between performer and audience. It was only the most vigorous moments that fully enveloped the listener. WPAS had no real choice; what was it to do, turn away subscribers from a season centerpiece?

Thankfully, Ma is used to playing in the grand halls of the world, and he projects his sound as well as any soloist. Ma's artistry seems grounded in the Italian vocal tradition. At its heart is a focused tone, shimmering and golden. He revels at the center of a phrase, never playing catch-up or rushing. He attacks a long phrase or dense harmonics accurately and departs cleanly.

There is not a hard edge in his musicmaking, even in an aggressive score like the Shostakovich Cello Sonata in D Minor on the program. That bleak and biting score came off as searing and evocative, even if heard as though through a scrim.

Ma and Stott -- communicating constantly to keep the textures proportioned -- seemed unconcerned about the vastness of the space, fearlessly negotiating dynamics and taking the music down to a whisper. More genial was Schubert's "Arpeggione" Sonata, originally written for that bowed, guitarlike instrument. A soaring slow middle put the animation of the outer movements in high relief. Ma and Stott added special zest to the finale, which emerged as a rustic dance.

Ma has single-handedly expanded the cello repertoire, and he made a fervent case for a couple of well-crafted recital pieces. Astor Piazzolla's "Le Grand Tango" was sultry and rich, while Brazilian composer Egberto Gismonti's "Bodas de Prata & Quatro Cantos" came out dazzling and full of character, filled with rich piano cascades and folky mood. Ma and Stott made out Franck's Sonata in A, beautifully transcribed from violin to cello, as the luxurious romantic piece that it is. Here, that invisible force field seemed to drop, and the arching spindles and plush details surrounded the listener.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company