Yo-Ya Ma shares the spotlight in Aliso Viejo

Yo-Yo Ma
Orange Country Register

By Peter Lefevre

The world’s most famous classical musician keeps the focus on the music and his partner in his concert with pianist Kathryn Stott.

Are there Yo-Yo Ma lunchboxes yet?

If you're 50 or younger, you most likely can't remember a time when he wasn't famous. He's as much a celebrity as classical music can produce, with a cultural resonance that echoes far beyond his day job.

Watch him head banging to "Stairway to Heaven" at the recent Kennedy Center honors, or watch a picture of him go viral (if you haven't already, do yourself a favor and Google "Yo-Yo Ma on a bathroom floor with a wombat"), and it gets harder to remember what a virtuosic, open-minded musician he is. He isn't low-, middle-, or high-brow. He's no-brow; a reassuring, accessible, warm-hearted icon who almost incidentally plays the cello.

Yet there he was in recital on Saturday night, at Aliso Viejo's Soka Unversity Performing Arts Center, joined by frequent collaborator Kathryn Stott at the final stop of their recent tour. He played the cello. How out-of-context.

In this instance, the program was drawn largely from the 20th century: Stravinsky, Messiaen, DeFalla. It could have just as easily been Bach, Tan Dun, bluegrass, or transcriptions from Azerbaijani opera. His versatility and omnivorous taste are well-known, as is his commanding technique.

Still, as was apparent Saturday, there's still more to him. He's a visibly unselfish performer. He directed his focus at the music, at the composers, at his partner, and rarely at himself. He may have been the centerpiece, but he wasn't the star.

His interplay with Stott in the "Jota" movement of De Falla's 7 Canciones Populares Espanolas encapsulated this generosity. They leaned into each other, synchronizing the work's snap and flourish and offering constant mutual support. Stott is an animated, intense, intuitive pianist, and when Ma wasn't playing he was watching her, as entranced as the audience. Their familial spirit gave the piece that much more nuance and depth. That characterized the recital: you saw partners on stage, not a soloist with accompaniment.

The evening began with Stravinsky's Suite Italienne, Ma striding on to the stage looking like a Head of State. The two launched into the light bounce of the famous "Introduzione," and together placed everything in proportion, not attempting to get anything more out of it than is already there. Their unity paid off tremendously as the rhythmic demands became more treacherous in later movements. Hang together, or hang separately.

"Praise to the Eternity of Jesus," from Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time proved the evening's highlight. A contemplative, ghostly dreamscape, Ma and Stott articulated this strange and transcendent piece with fastidious care. That there was no violin or clarinet (a Duo for the End of Time?) made little difference. Ma's stable tone, pure intonation, and taut melodic lines captured the work's profundity; at least the audience's long enraptured silence following the conclusion said as much.

Also on the program, a ferocious run-through of Brahms' Sonata No. 3, Op. 108, and three short pieces from South America: Piazzolla's "Oblivion," Villa-Lobos' "Alma Brasileira," and Guarnieri's "Dansa Negra." If the evening had a misstep, it was the saccharine, sentimental encore, "The Last Song," by Clarice Assad. A "nice" piece, as Charles Ives would say.