Yo-Yo Ma is widely considered to be the greatest cellist alive today. Ask anyone inside the classical musical world, or even outside of it, and the answer is likely the same. Even people beyond the classical music scene are likely to know Yo-Yo Ma above anyone else. He’s not only known for his winning music, but also for his extremely personable nature. Most recently, he’s been nominated for a Grammy in the traditional folk section for his experimental album The Goat Rodeo Sessions.
However, his recent performance in Weill Hall at the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park, California, hailed as the new cultural center for music on the West Coast, was no goat rodeo (slang for inspired chaos). It was Yo-Yo Ma at his best, accompanied by pianist Kathryn Stott. The performance had been sold out for nine months and was the most highly anticipated evening of the inaugural season of the music center.
Mr. Ma and Ms. Stott took audience members on a journey around the world with selections from Stravinsky (the “Suite Italienne”), Manuel de Falla (“7 Canciones Populares Española’s”, “G. 40”), Brahms (“Sonata No. 3 in D minor”, “Op. 108”) and, additionally, pieces from Heitor Villa-Lobos, Astor Piazolla and Camargo Guarnieri.
Ma’s playing can be both powerful and subtle, but what surprised me most from his performance was its sensuality. His playing does not exude a lustful sexuality, but an extremely subtle, sensual touch. He takes the cello and the bow and he seduces the music from them. He touches them beyond the physical level while, at the same time, the cello becomes an extension of his body and essence.
Stott and Ma have been playing together for a number of years, and she is able to match Ma’s virtuoso-like quality and reputation with her own outstanding musicianship. Together, they form a sonic union with that makes the performance a conversation of musical greats, during which not a word was spoken – beyond the musical pieces themselves. The atmosphere at Weill Hall, widely praised for being one of the top three musical venues in the world for its musical design and capacity, gave these worldly performances a touch of the religious. Forget about Yo-Yo Ma’s reputation as a god of classical music, and forget going to a “name” performance where there had been high-profile receptions in his honor, and focus only on the audience experience of the music – it was one of grace.
Ma and Stott simply took to the stage, and without speaking, began playing (as is the classical tradition) before taking a brief intermission and completing their performance with two encores. Throughout the evening there were moments when Ma seemed in ecstasy, in pain, emotionally overwhelmed by the music, and in ease and joy. It was all the pleasures of the sublime experience. Sweating profusely at times and drying off his forehead with his sleeve, he held nothing back from the audience – not his pain, not his joy. And it is that beyond-reputation virtuosity and willingness to give everything to a performance that makes Yo-Yo Ma still the master until he one day, far into the future, passes his bow to a new generation.