In what was almost certainly an unconsciously theatrical move, Yo-Yo Ma settled down in his chair onstage at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall Wednesday night and, before playing a note, held up his cello before the standing-room-only audience. It looked like a shield but was in fact an invitation.
Few pieces of music in the cello literature offer the same potential for intimate communication as J.S. Bach's Suites for Unaccompanied Cello -- and surely few musicians are as keenly capable of sharing their glories as this artist. In an evening devoted to playing the last three of Bach's six solo suites, Yo-Yo Ma drew a captivated audience into the realm of pure music -- where music speaks for itself without external program or conceit.
Almost without fail he succeeded in locating the flash point between spirit and technique that exists throughout these suites. The Prelude from Suite No. 4 in E-flat, BWV 1010, unfolded with deliberation and grandeur before the music took off like the wind; the following Allemande, an intricate balance of light and shade, never lost its sheen.
Indeed, it was hard to decide on one's favorite of the various faces of Bach that Ma uncovered. No doubt some in the audience preferred the seamless gigues that closed each of the suites; still others might have chosen the incisive allemandes and courantes.
But to this reviewer it seemed Ma communicated most deliciously in the slow saraband movements -- and at times when the warmly lyrical sound of the cello most closely approximated the human voice. The restraint in the Saraband of the Fourth Suite was a perfect foil for the tempestuous triplets of the Gigue that followed; the Saraband in the Fifth Suite -- arguably the most beautiful movement played all evening -- was all the more intense for its beguiling simplicity; and the Saraband in the Sixth Suite a fine montage of double- and triple-stopped notes that Ma suffused with warmth and depth.
In music that demands as much of the listener as the performer, Yo-Yo Ma invited us on a journey made magical by his playing.