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Yo-Yo Ma's voracious appetite for Bach resounds through sold-out Jemison Concert Hall (music review)

Yo-Yo Ma

By Michael Huebner

BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- Yo-Yo Ma is an unusual genius.

He may be the finest cellist of our time, but he may also be the friendliest and most ebullient. The magic he created for a sold-out Jemison Concert Hall Friday came not only from his probing insight into the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, but from the way he brought these nearly 300-year-old masterpieces into the hearts and minds of listeners as though they knew Bach personally.

Given the 58-year-old musician's global lifestyle and voracious appetite for music from every corner of the planet, framing his solo recital as a three-course meal with Bach as executive chef made perfect sense. Appearing on stage, sans cello, before the music began, he defined short works by Adnan Saygun, Mark O'Connor and George Crumb as palate cleansers before the courses.

Once bow met string in Saygun's “Partita,” all of that was forgotten. Composed in 1954, the “Partita” is entrenched in the exoticism of the Middle East, its mystery and folk stylings resounding slowly and heavenly.

Few solo artists can fill a 1,300-seat hall like Ma can, even the acoustical marvel of Jemison, which is better designed for large ensembles. Immediately launching into Bach's Suite No. 1 in G major for unaccompanied cello, the cellist demanded reverence for every note, arpeggio, trill and double-stop. Though familiar from countless recordings, his inimitable legato phrasing, rich tone and ability to effortlessly negotiate Bach's multi-layered voicings, was a unique experience when heard live.

Mark O'Connor's “Appalachia Waltz,” which was an encore following a 2009 Alabama Symphony appearance, had the same gentle folk quality Friday as it did then. But by segueing without applause to Bach's Suite No. 2 in D minor, he seemed to be saying that all Western music, even as far removed as rural America, leads back to Bach.

This suite's more serious underpinnings exposed Ma's deep introspection, even the Minuet waiving its danceability and given an unusual pensiveness. Perhaps the evening's most heart-rending moments came in the Sarabande, Ma milking its long lines and lyricism, invoking the tearful ambiance of gamba sonatas from an earlier time in the Baroque era.

One of George Crumb's early compositions, the Sonata for Solo Cello has become of staple of modern cello literature, it's searching melodies, virtuoso pizzicato and gritty, energetic finale ideal vehicles for Ma's multifaceted palette. Bach's Suite No. 3 was the bright, sunny closer, Ma's shimmering tone fully projecting in the fullness of the arpeggios, buoyancy of the very danceable Allemande and, in the Gigue, a brilliantly executed orchestral dialogue.

In his pre-concert culinary analogies, he declined to mention all the ingredients that go into these recipes, but it should be noted that each “cleansing” work ends on the same note or key as the Bach suite that follows. It happened with Saygun's work ending on G and connecting with the G major suite, O'Connor's D major followed by Bach's D minor suite, and Crumb's ending C leading into the Suite No. 3 in C major. Subliminal perhaps, but those relationships were the glue that bound this well-crafted musical menu together.

It helps, of course, that Ma possesses a combination of technical precision and expression that is nearly incomparable among cellists modern or historic (check it out on YouTube), but for programming and live performance, this recital will be hard to top any time soon.

The enthusiastic crowd would not let him leave without an encore. John Williams' “Pickin'” is John Williams' nod to banjo picking and cotton picking, but more than that, it gave Ma another virtuoso avenue to explore, this one in the American South.