Yo-Yo Ma and friends serve up a Brazilian feast to sold-out audience

04.30.12
Sérgio and Odair Assad
Chicago Classical Review

By Wynne Delacoma

“I hope you’re feeling the magic…”

Yo-Yo Ma hadn’t even finished the sentence when waves of applause and cheers from the sold-out audience at Symphony Center engulfed him Sunday night. He was onstage with the Brazilian-born guitarists Sergio and Odair Assad, British pianist Kathryn Stott and American percussionist Joseph Gramley, chatting briefly with the audience before wrapping up an evening of Brazilian-inspired music.

Magic is an element Ma conjures easily, whether he’s performing a marathon of Bach unaccompanied cello suites or the latest music by compatriots on his Silk Road expeditions. And the exceptionally attentive, eager audience was certainly feeling it Sunday night in the concert’s winning combination of laid-back vibe and impeccable technique.

The evening had all the elements of chamber music at its very best: a collaboration among friends who happen to be musical masters, who know each other well and enjoy having an audience come along as they explore less-traveled corners of the repertoire. Featuring composers including Villa-Lobos, Jobim, Piazzolla and Clarice Assad, Sergio’s daughter, the program was crisply paced and nicely varied. We had a chance to hear Stott and Ma as a duo and the Assads by themelves as well as all five musicians in mostly short works and a few larger-scale pieces like Clarice Assads’ evocative Back to Our Roots Suite.

Ma and Stott have been performing together for almost three decades. They have been working with the Assads, long-time stars of the guitar firmament, for 15 years; Gramley is an original member of the Silk Road ensemble that Ma founded in 2000. The fact that Sergio Assad, married to an astrophysicist at the University of Chicago, is now based in Chicago added to the atmosphere of a happy homecoming for longtime friends and family.

It’s no secret that Brazilian music, with its contrasts of smoky, languorous melodies and outbursts of fast, syncopated rhythms, is seductive music. But part of the magic Sunday night was the subtlety of this seduction. In the slower, more meditative moments during a set of short pieces that opened the evening, Stott and Ma didn’t exaggerate the swaying rhythms or lingering melodies. Ma’s cello seemed to float with otherworldly calm amid a smoky haze in Piazzolla’s Oblivion. And the occasional dissonances between piano and cello in Camargo Guarnieri’s Dansa Negra were witty as well as slyly sexy.

In a medley of Three Brazilian Songs by Anibal Augusto Sardinha for guitar duo, the Assads brought elegant shading to the slow passages while their melody lines twisted like cheerfully tangled vines when the tempos speeded up.

The Assads’ grandparents emigrated from Lebanon to Brazil in 1895, and the four sections of the Back to Our Roots Suite offered a sophisticated blend of contemporary Brazilian swing and the darker harmonies and pungent rhythms of the Middle East. Trading his guitar for a sazuki, a kind of lute, Sergio added its leaner sound to the intricate interplay of wistful cello, mellow, big-throated guitar, driving, syncopated piano and crisp, Indian tabla-style drumming.

The two encores, Piazzolla’s high-energy Libertango and Clarice Assad’s The Last Song, summed up the evening. That the audience didn’t seem to breathe until the final, hushed note of The Last Song had completely drifted away was magic indeed.