There was a moment halfway through Yo-Yo Ma’s recital Thursday night at Washington National Cathedral that summed up the beloved cellist’s universal appeal. He had just finished the third of Bach’s six suites for solo cello and, sensing a reticence from the appreciative but reserved audience, began acting as his own hype man. Ma implored the crowd for a standing ovation and held his priceless 1712 Stradivarius over his head like a WWE championship belt. Yet not a minute later, he was again lost in musical concentration, drawing out the rich sonorities and exquisite harmonies of the Prelude of Bach’s Fourth Suite.
It is this duality — Ma as high-minded artist and populist communicator — that has made him a global icon. Yet Thursday’s sold-out concert, which featured Bach’s complete cello suites and was simulcast at Union Station and live-streamed on YouTube, also revealed a more intriguing side to Ma: The restless, inquisitive cellist still has something new to say.
Ma, 63, has recorded Bach’s suites — the foundation and pinnacle of the solo cello repertory — three times, most recently this year. Gone in this recital, which required amplification in the cavernous space, were the sweeping Romantic lines of his earliest effort and Baroque exaggerations of his second. Instead, Ma offered Bach refined and distilled, with interpretations that felt at once intensely personal and utterly inevitable.
Ma’s still-effortless technique was always placed in service of his innate musicality, which captured the essence of each movement: the conversational intimacy of the Sixth’s Suite Allemande; the tragic resignation of the Fifth Suite’s Gigue; and the disarming joy of the Fourth Suite’s Bourrées. The high points of each suite usually came in the slow, searching Sarabandes, where Ma’s masterly control over harmonic tension and rhythmic shape laid bare soaring emotions and a deep vulnerability.
This Washington Performing Arts recital was the latest stop on Ma’s 36-city, six-continent tour, with each intermission-less performance of the Bach suites accompanied by a day of community outreach. Will Saint Yo-Yo save the world with the gospel of Bach and his Oprah-esque bromides about “aspirational goals”? Who knows. But he’s making beautiful music along the way.