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Yo-Yo Ma rocks the Green Center

Yo-Yo Ma
Press Democrat

By Diane Peterson

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his long-time collaborator, pianist Kathryn Stott, ignited the crowd and moved many to tears Saturday night at the Green Music Center's Weill Hall during the most anticipated concert of Sonoma State University's initial music series.

This was Ma's first public appearance at Weill Hall, the centerpiece of the $120 million Green Music Center, which opened on the Sonoma State University campus in September after 15 years of prolonged fund-raising and construction. However, the world-famous cellist played an impromptu mini-concert in the hall with pianist/conductor Jeffrey Kahane in September 2011 to celebrate Kahane's birthday.

The event began with a cocktail reception for 200 guests in Schroeder Hall, a recital hall still under construction next to the Green Music Center academic wing. Drinks and hors d'oeuvres were served, ice was trucked in for the patio and heat lamps warmed up the crowd during the fund-raiser to benefit the new Weill Hall Artists-in-Residence program.

Among those attending were Nancy Pelosi, minority leader of the House of Representatives, Jeannie Schulz, SSU President Ruben Arminana, Santa Rosa councilman Ernesto Olivares and new California State University Chancellor Timothy White.

“This has become a community gathering spot,” said Dan Condron, vice president for University Affairs at SSU. “I think it's a source of pride beyond Sonoma State.”

The concert took the audience on a world trip, starting with Igor Stravinsky's “Suite Italienne,” then through three South American pieces, and back to Europe with works by Spanish composer Manuel de Falla and French composer Olivier Messiaen, ending with Brahms' searing Sonata No. 3 in D Minor, Op. 108 for violin.

About 50 audience members were able to sit on stage with the performers. Ma had a music stand but barely glanced at it, preferring to close his eyes and throw his head back during the more passionate passages.

He appeared relaxed but engaged, beads of sweat forming on his brow through a flurry of double-stops, harmonics and pizzicato in the Stravinsky work.

Still youthful in appearance and at the top of his game in terms of technique and musicality, the 57-year-old musician has changed little from his performances in Santa Rosa in 1995 and 1998 when he played concerts in support of the Santa Rosa Symphony.

Out of the seven works on the program, only the Stravinsky and Messiaen pieces were originally composed for the cello. All of the rest were either adapted or arranged for Ma and Stott, who performed the same program Thursday night at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley and will repeat it again at Stanford's new Bing Hall on Sunday.

“Together, they take these chances that result in incredible music-making,” said Birgit Hottenrott of Piedmont. “Their joy and skill is visible to the audience.”

After the recital, a gala dinner for 200 people was held in a tent in front of the Green Music Center, another benefit for the artists-in-residence program. The gala kicked off with remarks by Sonoma State University President Ruben Arminana and Green Music Center Board Chairman Sanford Weill, It was followed by a brief performance by Trio Ariadne, which will perform for Sonoma State University students over the course of a year.

“What excites me is the potential for the input on the academics of SSU,” said Andrew Rogerson, provost for SSU. “It's going to transform this university and radiate across the campus . . . What the trio and the Green Music Center will do for us is lead us into creativity.”

Ma is a classical musician who once described his artistic mission as “going to the edge and then reporting back.” He has made a habit of crossing musical genres and cultures in his 75-some albums to date, including his most recent, “The Goat Rodeo Sessions,” which is nominated for two Grammy awards this year.

In 2011, Ma was honored at the Kennedy Center, with Stephen Colbert introducing him as “the greatest living cellist . . . Yo-Yo doesn't just play the cello. He rocks it.”

On Saturday night, Ma and Stott both rocked the house with Brahms and Villa-Lobos. The applause at the end was much louder than anything the duo had played, and they responded with a series of short but sweet encores.