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6.4.06

Chairman Ma Dances

Yo-Yo Ma, Kennedy Center Concert Hall, April 4, 2006Since cello playing media star Yo-Yo Ma was already in town to testify before Congress (warning them that visa restrictions adapted in the wake of 9/11 have a detrimental impact on cultural exchanges and visits from foreign artists), it only made sense to stop at the Kennedy Center afterwards and play a little music. Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, to be precise, from which he chose nos. 3 (C major), 5 (c minor), and 6 (D major). Their dignified beauty must have been a welcome contrast to his earlier Capitol Hill experience – and it was no doubt a marvelous event for the crowd that absolutely packed the Concert Hall in this WPAS-organized concert.

Yo-Yo Ma is a player whose skill is ever astonishing, whose musical and interpretive choices are always impeccable, never offensive. Since the cello suites are a rare enough occurrence on the concert scene (Ionarts last heard them in June of 2004 with Mischa Maisky), novelty or a particularly characterful interpretation are not prerequisite for enjoyment. The sublime music and expert craftsmanship of Yo-Yo Ma are more than enough to make for a good hour of transported bliss – all assuming a predisposition to Bach’s music.

First came the C major suite, no. 3, which hasn’t the most impressive or memorable beginning but some of the more effective endings to its meditative sections. If is probably the suite that most seduces with (and is most threatened by) romanticizing. Especially those double stops that cap the ‘dances’ can be dragged about for show much more than they can withstand. A habit that Yo-Yo Ma, in an otherwise unmannered performance, was not entirely immune to… most notably in the Sarabande. Although much more straightforward than Maisky’s romantic ride through the suites, Yo-Yo Ma’s Bach also has little more to do with baroque Bach than the actual notes. In his hands, the suites became – not without much merit, it must be said – confined to being ‘absolute’ music. Little life, plenty rhythm, much to think about: abstract beauties.

Other Reviews:

Charles T. Downey, Yo-Yo Ma at the Kennedy Center (DCist, April 5)

Stephen Brookes, Yo-Yo Ma (Washington Post, April 6)
A whiny beginning of the 6th suite’s Praeludium (notably less securely played than what came before and after – where there were only a handful of squeaks and slips present) betrayed a few problems, not the least of which might have been the uncomfortably high register in which the suite lies for the cello, an instrument it was not written for. Most cellists use a smaller cello with an additional E string for the performance, which is akin to the baroque violoncello piccolo that these pieces were probably written for. The unhappy opening was quickly forgotten in sonorous, linear, gentle (and slightly characterless) Allemande, Courante, and Sarabande, the latter of which was packed with numerous perfectly mastered double stops. The Gavotte was very nicely done, appropriately ‘dancy’, accentuated and displayed in all the foot-tapping delight that makes it one of the most popular, most easily recognized pieces of the set of suites. The finishing touches in the Gigue were moving and ended the concert on a high note… or would have, had it not been for two encores. Rather than dipping a bit into Suite No. 1, Yo-Yo Ma mouthed “No more Bach” to the audience, gesturing that he had his Bach fill for the night, and played first a central Asian Silk Road melody to appease the madly applauding audience – then a Chinese tune. Both diluted – rather than enhanced – the Bach memory.