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Yo-Yo Ma provides engrossing journey in wide-ranging program

Yo-Yo Ma
Chicago Classical Review

By Wynne Delacoma

Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott performed Wednesday night at Symphony Center.

All the signs of a typical Yo-Yo Ma recital were there Wednesday night at Symphony Center. Listeners seated on the stage, the stormy applause before he and pianist Kathryn Stott had played a note. The delighted yelps when they returned for a second encore.

Ma has long been one of classical music’s superstars. But he is a star inspired by sights and sounds far beyond the field’s central galaxy. Wednesday’s program, which ranged from Schubert to Shostakovich, Cesar Franck to Piazzolla, offered a bracing glimpse into how Ma is approaching programming these days.

On paper, the program looked capricious. Schubert’s Arpeggione Sonata In A mino, is full of dancing tunes and playful moments while Shostakovich’s Cello Sonata, composed in 1934, is more caustic, even tragic. Piazzolla’s Le Grand Tango and Bodas de Prata & Quatro Cantos (Silver anniversary and four songs)’’ by Brazilian composers Egberto Gismonti and Geraldo Carneiro seemed to belong to a different universe entirely. An arrangement for cello and piano of Franck’s beloved Violin Sonata offered a familiar anchor for such a wide-ranging program.

But audiences have come to trust Ma over the years. They know his Bach Cello Suites will probably be as engrossing as his Elgar or Dvorak cello concertos. And few other artists could have found large audiences so willing to travel along as he explores the music of Asia, the Far East and other corners of the fabled Silk Road.

The CSO recently named Ma as its first “creative consultant,’’ and Wednesday’s audience seemed ready to follow wherever the cellist and Stott, an accomplished pianist based in Britain, led them. Throughout the evening, the concert was a fascinating conversation between exceptionally well-matched partners.

The Shostakovich and Franck sonatas were among the high points. In the opening moments of the Shostakovich, Stott set out the dueling sensibilities that animate this piece. Serenely dappled, light-filled phrases in the piano’s right hand contrasted with more assertive, even ominous patterns in the left. Ma’s cello wandered alongside, at times urgent, at times relaxed and unhurried. Exactly where they were headed was unclear, but the journey was engrossing. In the scherzo, a raw, manic energy seized both instruments.

The Franck, with its haunting main theme, was luxuriously shaped without becoming overblown. In the tempestuous second movement, Stott roared through thundering arpeggios and chords with crystal-clear touch and supple phrasing. Ma responded with rhapsodic, wind-swept song.

In Piazzolla’s crunchy Grand Tango and the more long-lined, romantic Bodas de Prata, Ma’s cello was both ardent and suave.

The encores were a sultry, samba-tinged Cristal by contemporary Brazilian composer Cesar Camargo Mariano and an exceptionally hushed The Swan from Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals.

Ma will be back in Chicago May 13-15 with the CSO to present the world premiere of a cello concerto commissioned by the CSO from Uzbek composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovksy. Chicago audiences heard some of the composer’s beguiling music during Ma’s Silk Road project in Chicago four seasons ago.