Yo-Yo Ma plays transcendent Bach

05.13.09
Yo-Yo Ma
Vancouver Sun

VANCOUVER - The Vancouver Recital Society ended its season Tuesday with a full-to-the-rafters Chan Centre performance by celebrity cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Now in his mid-50s, Ma is one of the most acclaimed classical musicians on the planet.

His sterling record of artistic (and social) good works-not to mention his musical curiosity and continued interest in exploring new musical horizons-makes him a towering figure in contemporary life, the inheritor, if you will, of the activist legacy of Yehudi Menuhin.

Ma's choice of program speaks to his integrity as an artist. There might have been fans who longed for a mixed program of more popular repertoire, or who questioned the wisdom of a recital comprised exclusively of three of Bach's suites for unaccompanied cello. Yet these remarkable works remain the objects of life-long study by every cellist. Each is structured with an opening prelude followed by a succession of stylized Baroque dances. They make extraordinary demands on both audience and performer, testing as they do the technical, interpretive, intellectual, and emotional range of their performers. What better repertoire for a musician of Ma's stature?

From the very first notes of the G major Suite, Ma's game plan was clear: defined, intelligent strategies to make these monumental soliloquies work in a large hall, but with no pandering effects for the sake of effects. Ma chose to blur the separateness of the dances, conceiving of the work in a single take with emphasis on the genial, even affable qualities of the piece.

His interpretation of the Suite in C Minor was darker and more edgy, launched by a broad gesture that seemed to embody brooding discontent. Though the rhythmic outlines of the various dances remained, there was a consistent sense of tension: the Sarabande explored the relentless intensity of Bach's angular melodic lines; the concluding sequence of Gavotte I & II and Gigue contained moments of almost obsessive drive. Tone for Ma is usually sophisticated, and even, when the occasion merits, luscious; here it was gruff, the conscious roughness adding to the drama and the depth.

The evening concluded with the C major Suite. Here the bywords were flair, a certain flamboyance, and a high-spirited sense of revelry. Even the rich sonorities of the central Sarabande rang out with a feeling of celebration, confirmed by the almost rustic double stops of the final Gigue-great playing in the service of transcendent music.