Yo-Yo Ma

at Orchestra Hall, March 8

By Michael Solot

When Yo-Yo Ma arrives at a certain pitch of intensity in performance, you not only hear his passion in the music but see it plainly in the man. He snaps his head sharply in time to the beat, whipping his hair this way and that. He swings his cello back and forth along a wide and graceful curve, then pauses at one end of the arc to lean forward, as if aiming his notes toward a far corner of the house. Or while his hands carry nimbly on, he sits back, lifts his chin, shuts his eyes, and lets a smile play freely across his face. The gestures are large, but they’re all so perfectly fluid and fitting that musician and instrument appear to fuse into a single physical presence onstage. Ma doesn’t simply hold his cello, he incorporates it. At these moments of high tension the sounds he’s creating seem to emanate from within his body, as though in mastering the cello he’d somehow learned to make it sing with his own voice.

During Ma’s recital of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Six Suites for unaccompanied cello at Orchestra Hall, the crowds, large and grateful, were treated to more moments like that than one had any right to expect. The technical demands of such a program are obviously monumental, but the job of just keeping the audience interested in this rather difficult and peculiar music must be even more daunting. The suites follow the standard Baroque model: four traditional court dances–allemande, courante, saraband, and gigue–plus a pair of newer dance figures rotated through the second-to-last position. Each suite is introduced by a prelude, where the composer allowed himself some leeway, but otherwise the progression is the same in every case. These severe formal constraints served Bach in the same way that the rigidities of the sonnet served Shakespeare: they defined the limits that genius requires for the creation of art.

For the performer, however, this regularity presents a problem: how to catch and hold a mixed audience with music that’s likely to sound pretty much the same to anyone hearing it for the first time. And even for aficionados satiety must be a real danger. Imagine serving a meal composed of one beef course after another. It might be worth something as a kind of philosophical inquiry into the essence of beef, but how many guests would find the experience digestible?

Ma had sensibly chosen to break up his performance into a doubleheader: three suites in the afternoon and three in the evening. The matinee had attracted a large number of families with children, some of whom looked remarkably small for eight years old, the house minimum. Nobody got carded, as far as I could tell, which raised the question: what would the little sprogs make out of Bach’s sublime melancholy, possibly the most grown-up emotion in the human repertoire? Although certain movements of the suites are quite effervescent–notably the courantes and the gigues (named for the English jig)–in general this music is suffused with an intense sadness. I almost wrote infinite sadness, which would hardly overstate the mood of the saraband, the figure right in the middle of each suite. It has always struck me as the emotional heart of Bach’s progression, the pivot around which the other movements turn.

I’d been anticipating the drama of a lone chair on an empty stage with a house packed and waiting for the artist to emerge. In the event I found a part of that house actually on the stage, well within spitting distance of Ma’s seat. This new layout at Orchestra Hall, oddly suggestive of theater-in-the-round, is fine for those who wish to study a soloist’s bald spot; for the rest it’s quite distracting. True, when the lights went down you could almost forget that Ma had company onstage, but after intermission the lights were unaccountably raised so as to put several rows of paying customers on display. I expect they had doubts of their own about this arrangement.

Was the cellist himself disconcerted by so many patrons breathing down his neck? I don’t know, but for whatever reason, his performance during the first three innings was rarely exciting. Ma is able to play with dazzling speed, and in general his style emphasizes the light and delicate aspects of the music. As a result he did well in the faster movements and turned in especially rousing renditions of the gigues. But as a whole, the effect of the afternoon’s delivery was much like that of his 1983 recording of the complete cycle: a discouraging sameness overall, coupled with a sense of being rushed. The cellist was only 27 back then, far too young to shoulder the necessary burden of melancholy, loss, nostalgia, weltschmerz–whatever you care to call those ineffable feelings Bach evokes with such intensity. I’d been hoping that the last 15 years had dealt Ma the blows, or at least given him the perspective, necessary to deepen his understanding. (Bach himself was around 35 when he composed these suites–yet another measure of his genius.) I found myself disappointed, in particular by the second suite. Ma raised my hopes with a sensitive reading of the prelude and allemande, both movements swathed in sadness; but during the saraband, perhaps the most piercingly sad piece of music I know, my crank simply refused to turn. The most compelling movements in the suites always seem to tell a story of some kind, but here I was unable to pick out even the thread of a narration.

Considering the lack of excitement onstage, the younger members of the audience conducted themselves quite well; the back of my seat received fewer kicks than I normally get during the same amount of time on an airplane. The grown-ups were also polite and didn’t detain Ma unduly with their clapping.

When we got back to Orchestra Hall that evening there was an altogether different feel about the place. For one thing, the median age of the audience had risen by about 15 years. For another, the spectators had been banished from the stage, leaving the gently rising platforms to form an appropriately austere background for the task Ma was about to undertake. It seemed like the obstacles had purposely been cleared away so we could finally get down to business–which is exactly what Ma proceeded to do.

If anyone ever hit a nail on its head in a concert, Ma did so with the fourth suite. He turned his delicate and graceful style into the perfect vehicle for the flowing prelude and maintained a high pitch of excitement through the next two movements as well. Greatness in art, in music above all, rarely comes without at least a small measure of tedium, and the cello suites are no exception. The sprightly courantes are often an occasion to let the mind wander, but now I was utterly riveted. In Ma’s hands the dirgelike pathos of the saraband took on a luster I’d never heard before; even the bouncing bouree that came next was unable to emerge from the profound shadow Ma had cast with the saraband. Truly, this was a unified interpretation. Possibly the finest moment of the evening came during the finale, when Ma seemed to force every emotion of the entire suite into the taut, propulsive, and unrelenting rhythm of the gigue, which through the very intensity of his playing achieved a kind of release. It was electrifying.

Now Ma was fully warmed up. For the massive prelude of the fifth he turned in a performance of breathtaking purity. This movement stands alone among the preludes both for its length and its darkness, and I could hardly believe I was hearing the same cellist whose recording of this long moan of anguish had always left me cold. Ma delivered this prelude as an exploration of sadness itself, as if Bach had somehow abstracted the emotion, shearing it of both lugubriousness and despair. This seemed right. Despair as an aesthetic value may or may not be a modern invention, but in any case it’s alien to the cello suites, sad as they are.

Why is sadness so beautiful? Or is beauty itself simply sad? These are the questions Bach poses over and over, nowhere more poignantly than in the saraband of the fifth suite, by far the strangest movement in the whole cycle. It presents no double-stopping, its pace is deliberate, and its melody is simple. Yet it has an unmistakable dissonance that gets under your skin like nothing else. This movement sounds modern, which makes it all the more disconcerting. It’s as if a painter in the court of Louis XIV had produced a canvas that looks like Guernica. Ma’s playing of this movement was exquisite, but his touch was so delicate that the fullness of many of his notes failed to reach the lower balcony where I was sitting. (Perhaps this was due to the hall’s troublesome acoustics. Those same acoustics, however, had no difficulty conveying every rasping nuance of the five- or ten-second interval between movements, when the house magically transformed itself into a ward full of lung patients.)

How long could Ma keep this up? In the final suite I failed to pick out any of the pulsating echo effects of the prelude, but this too may have been the fault of the acoustics. The next two movements came off reasonably well, though Ma’s approach, elegant as it was, didn’t do justice to the majesty of the allemande. I think of it as a kind of call and response, though in a very dark vein, which is better served by a more muscular attack.

In the saraband we witnessed a sudden transformation. To the cellist who performs the complete cycle, this point must be like the 22-mile mark to the marathoner–the wall, the place where even the fittest and bravest will begin to stumble. The first thing to go was Ma’s tone; it was as if the rosin had suddenly been blown off his bow. Things took another turn for the worse in the next movement, when Bach’s double-stopping seemed to get the better of the cellist. At a few especially painful points he sounded like mush. Then, like a runner glimpsing the finish line, he rallied and gave us a good approximation of a robust finale. But who’s counting? It was a thrilling performance withal.

The crowd certainly felt that way, bringing Ma out for five curtain calls. On the last one, to my great surprise, he sat down for an encore. If I’d known he was thinking along those lines I would have stopped clapping five minutes earlier. But the jug wasn’t empty after all. He identified the piece only by the three-word disclaimer “It’s not Bach.” It was “Appalachian Waltz” by Mark O’Connor, and Ma played with all the ease and freshness of a man who’d woken up from his Sunday nap an hour before. It sounded something like a lullaby, perhaps the kind of thing Ma plays to his own children when they’ve been good, and made a lovely valediction.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by J. Henry Fair.