The extraordinary cellist Yo-Yo Ma was the principal attraction last night when New York's Y Chamber Orchestra, under Gerard Schwarz, came to the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

He played the rhapsodic, impassioned Schumann Cello Concerto, which is not normally handled by a chamber orchestra--in this case about 40 players. But the place of the orchestra in this work is so secondary that the size of the forces made little difference last night.

The solo cello's role is almost operatic in its long breathed phrases. It soars like a great singer, leaping from top range to bottom and back with impunity. It is not easy or timid music. There was nothing timid about Ma's smashing performance. He plays the instrument just about as well as anyone right now, and last night he sang away with romantic fervor. The serene trance of the slow movement was spun out in a way that would be beyond the breath control of a singer. Then the third movement came at a considerable clip, with the coda so fast that most cellists could not handle it. Ma played it perfectly. By the way, first cellist Andre Emelianoff played the duet he had with Ma in the slow movement quite sensitively.

The novelties on the program were three lyric and nostalgic American works. The strongest by far was Howard Hanson's Serenade for Flute, Strings and Harp, written as a wedding gift to his wife. It is a vaguely impressionistic work of about 10 minutes, with strong melodic ideas, beautiful orchestration and a real sense of forward development.

Kent Kennan was a Hanson student and the influence showed in his Night Soliloquy for Flute and String Orchestra, but it was less substantial a composition. The Y Orchestra's first flute, Thomas Nyfenger, played both of them glowingly.

Victor Herbert's Serenade for String Orchestra was the third novelty. This is from the days when Herbert was best known as a classical conductor and cellist, before his Broadway glory. The Serenade suggests in its sweet intimacy the melodies of the 19th-century Norwegian Grieg and in its orchestration the rich, chordal textures of the Tchaikovsky String Serenade.

Haydn's "Clock" Symphony came last. The performance was strong in the heavy passages, such as the introduction, the end of the slow movement and most of the finale. It lacked delicacy and elegance in the other parts, though.