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Yo-Yo Ma's Om

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Bach, Solo Cello Suites, Yo-Yo Ma
Washington Performing Arts Society presented cellist Yo-Yo Ma in an exclusive solo recital at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on Monday night. It was the first such local performance since 2006, not counting a duo recital with Kathryn Stott, and it also featured three of Bach's solo cello suites. It is a rare thing to see a single classical musician -- a man, a cello, a chair, not even a music stand -- hold a large hall of people, including many seated on the stage with him, utterly spellbound. Ma plays the Bach suites with extraordinary dignity, not the greatest or even really unusual interpretation, but a dignity that he can bring to all sorts of music, even the most humble. That he also does admirable things like make a visit to a local elementary school while he is in town is surely partly responsible for that dignity.

The Bach -- suites 1, 2, and 3 -- is much as I remember it from 2006: a consistently beautiful, carefully spun, rarely overblown, often straight tone; not disappointingly metronomic pacing, but little ostentatious rubato except some oozing and stretching in the sarabandes; some very intimate, small dances contrasted with more outgoing pieces, especially the preludes. Although he took all the repeats, Ma added basically zero ornamentation to any of this music, although he often gave the repeats a different articulation or dynamic. None of the movements felt rushed or even strikingly fast, even the gigues, but it was all thoughtful, musical, and measured.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Yo-Yo Ma and the Bach cello suites: Familiar, but certainly not routine (Washington Post, December 5)

Jane Cavalier, Yo-Yo Ma’s sold-out concert blends cultures, styles (The Dartmouth, September 14)
The dignity that Ma brought to the Bach suites extended to the pieces he paired them with, in the first half holding the audience from applauding so that the two pieces ran together. This was true of music of modest interest, like the Allegretto movement of Turkish composer Ahmet Saygun's Partita, op. 31, a repetitive cantillation on a modally inflected scale. It was even true of Mark O'Connor's Appalachia Waltz, a piece "composed in fifteen minutes" and that sounds like it. Now available in any number of arrangements, it is the worst kind of hokey claptrap, a musical meringue that seems good as an idea but has no substance. The only piece that held up to the Bach was George Crumb's sonata for solo cello, composed in 1955 when the composer was in his 20s. The piece is not in the experimental style one expects from Crumb's later works, with soft pizzicati and a bluesy melody in the first movement, and a dance-like theme with a broad range of variations in the second. Here at last was a rollicking gigue, in the last movement, the final part of a bracing moment, much needed in an evening that could have been too meditative.

The next big event on the WPAS season is a recital by pianist Daniil Trifonov (January 19, 2 pm), in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.

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