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Review: Even as second fiddle, Yo-Yo Ma's cello is first rate

08.20.13
Yo-Yo Ma
Times Herald-Record

By Steve Israel

Goat Rodeo Sessions thrill at Bethel Woods

BETHEL — You don't usually hear the foot-tapping count of "1, 2 ... 1, 2, 3, 4," begin a Yo-Yo Ma concert.

You certainly don't expect the cellist called "simply the best" by the New York Philharmonic's principal cellist, Warwick's Eileen Moon, to play second fiddle in any musical situation.

But Friday night's show at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts wasn't your typical Yo-Yo Ma classical affair.

This was Yo-Yo Ma and his group, Goat Rodeo Sessions, having a bluegrass-flavored blast before a cheering crowd of some 2,800.

This was Yo-Yo Ma, who's performed for presidents and won awards like the Presidential Medal of Freedom, ceding the solo spotlight to his rootsy musical colleagues — fiddler Stuart Duncan, bassist Edgar Meyer, mandolinist Chris Thile and, occasionally, sublime guest vocalist Aoife O'Donovan, for an evening that was as refreshing as the cool, late summer breeze.

This was nearly two hours of genre-bending music that included foot-tapping flights of fiddle fancy, hand-clapping hoe downs and, during one of the evening's lovelier moments, the only classical piece — the third and fourth movements of Bach's Gamba Sonata, led not by Ma, but Meyer. Goat Rodeo even played a Bob Dylan tune, "Farewell Angelina," which featured the silken, smoky singing of O'Donovan.

So while Yo-Yo Ma may be the reason most of the crowd of over 50-year-olds came to Bethel Woods on this Woodstock anniversary weekend, the cellist mostly played a musical back seat to his less famous, but immensely talented colleagues — particularly Thile, whose lickety-split mandolin picked, pranced and pirouetted, and Duncan, whose fiddle soared and swung, square-dance style.

That's not to say Yo-Yo Ma let his colleagues do all the work. His cello added a warm and woodsy depth to the music and he often joined the Goats in their flights of musical fancy with an astonishing vocabulary of techniques that included plucking, bowing and tapping. Plus, he joined — and frequently led — the frequent verbal bantering, such as when the Goats riffed on the nicknames they give each other.

"Stubert," Yo-Yo Ma called Stuart Duncan. "Like the composer Franz Stubert."