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Mixed Ma

November 20, 2007

Yo-Yo Ma is certainly one of the most genial and gifted soloists to grace international concert stages in recent memory. The ambitious range of his concert programming is an appealing reflection of postmodern aesthetics. He has also demonstrated an admirable commitment to bringing wider public awareness to a diverse spectrum of important musical subcultures. For those of us grown accustomed to Ma's forays into new genres, his sold-out recital on Thursday at Zellerbach Hall was, for the most part, a return to familiar territory.

Yo-Yo Ma

Sonatas by Schubert, Shostakovich, and Franck, which made up the bulk of the program, are staples of the repertoire, and Astor Piazzolla's Grand Tango, written for Rostropovich in 1982 (not 1990, as listed in the program), has long since become a safe choice for cellists looking for "new" music with an immediate popular appeal. The program was rounded out with an arrangement of Egberto Gismonti's Bodas de prata & quatro cantos, an appealing work that hovers in one of those liminal areas between jazz, Brazilian popular music, and more mainstream modern concert music.

The program opened with Schubert's "Arpeggione" Sonata. Composed in 1824 for a newly invented bowed guitar that enjoyed a brief period of popularity in early 19th-century Vienna, the sonata is more often performed in transcriptions for cello or viola. Unfortunately, I was unaware that Cal Performances had scheduled the performance for 7:30 p.m. rather than the more usual 8 p.m., and when I arrived at the hall the performance had already begun.

So I had to be content with listening to the Schubert via a faintly amplified broadcast, along with about 100 other rather noisy audience members who had made the same mistake. Since Ma's strengths as a performer are particularly well-suited to the soaring lyricism and witty, tossed-off virtuosic passages of this music, I was particularly disappointed, and from what little I could make out, it sounded like a fine performance indeed.
A Pensive, Playful Reading
Ma's approach to Dmitri Shostakovich's Sonata in D Minor, Op. 40, which followed, was a revelation. Most performances convey a chilling sense of dark irony, while echoes of Shostakovich's struggles with Stalin and the Soviet authorities inevitably seem to reverberate in the background. Since such performances have been so compelling, in particular a famous recording by Rostropovich, with the composer at the piano, it's easy to forget that the sonata was written in 1934, shortly before the composer's problems with the authorities began.

Ma's performance of the work, one of the finest I have heard, focused instead on the sonata's full-blooded Romanticism. While Shostakovich's lighter, childlike tunes retained a subtle sense of irony, the general mood was by turns pensive and innocently playful, rather than chilling and dark.

In the many lyrical passages, Ma demonstrated an exceptionally fine bow control, and shaped his lines with an impressive range of colors. His partner, Kathryn Stott, is a fine pianist and a sensitive accompanist but perhaps a bit reticent as a chamber music partner. At several moments she really should have taken the reins from her more famous colleague.

While Piazzolla's carefully crafted Grand Tango offers many appealing ideas, it has never convinced me that it's a concert work, and Thursday's performance did little to change my mind. Perhaps that's because performers so often seem to get caught up in the attempt to make it sound like serious art music. To be successful, tangos need an easy, confident touch, plus a subtle rhythmic swing, which Ma and Stott never quite achieved. As a result, the characteristic tango gestures sounded forced and unidiomatic.

Gismonti's Bodas de prata, which opened the second half of the program, was much more successful than the Piazzolla. Ma's genial character and subtly lyrical phrasing seemed much more at home in these atmospheric, introspective song arrangements, and Stott provided a suitably brooding background of impressionistic colors.
Franck at a Gallop
A cello version of César Franck's popular violin sonata closed the program. Cellists started performing arrangements of this work shortly after Franck published it in 1886. In fact, Casals once claimed (falsely) that the sonata was originally written for cello. In any case, it fits the instrument well, and arrangements are simply a matter of playing most of the violin part an octave lower. Although it's programmed too often these days, in transcriptions for many different instruments this sonata remains one of the masterworks of 19th-century chamber music.

Alas, this was the most disappointing performance of the evening. The first movement began promisingly, with subtly surging statements of the first theme from both cello and piano. But their sense of rubato gradually lost focus, and in much of the rest of the sonata, rhythms were distorted beyond recognition. Earlier in the evening, I had been impressed with Ma's ability to shape phrases at exceedingly slow tempos, but in the Franck he seemed hurried, and much of the interpretation felt haphazard and glib.

The second movement, which was treated almost as a scherzo, was particularly superficial and passionless. Although the third movement was convincingly pensive, Ma's abuse of portato and punchy articulations obscured the sense of plaintive lament that is so important as a foil to the playfully triumphant canon of the last movement.

The ending of the Franck is guaranteed to bring the house down, even when the performance is less than ideal. The audience responded enthusiastically, though attempts at a standing ovation were quickly aborted. As an encore, Ma and Stott offered a nice performance of Elgar's Salut d'Amor.

John Lutterman is a cellist and musicologist. He holds a D.M.A. from SUNY Stony Brook and a Ph.D. in historical musicology from UC Davis.