Though we’re ostensibly on the summer side of the Vernal Equinox, winter winds continued to howl outside Symphony Hall Friday. Within its acoustically enveloping confines, by contrast, a full house was treated to warm rays of musical sunshine emanating from cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Kathryn Stott in their celebratory Celebrity Series recital.
Ma is a renowned musical omnivore, eagerly feasting upon a vast and all-encompassing repertoire, in this case, a wide-ranging banquet of music from disparate parts of the globe. The fare in the first half was relatively light and bite-sized, with much warmth from southern climes, while après-intermission two substantial and psychologically filling pieces rounded out the program.
Utilizing source material from his ballet Pulcinella (which, in turn, had incorporated themes from the quill of the extremely short-lived Baroque composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi), Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) crafted his Suite Italienne, a series of vignettes for cello and piano. The five brief movements range in mood from puckish to melancholy and require a panoply of challenging cello techniques. Even prior to the first bar, as Ma smiled broadly while quickly scanning the hall, you could sense this artist’s deep and powerful connection with his audience. His playing is immediate, direct, and hypercommunicative; it’s readily apparent that this is a musician who truly feels the notes with every quark of his being. “Petunia,” Ma’s 281-year-old Stradivarius, was in fine voice and seemingly fit as a fiddle, having long since recovered from the trauma of being inadvertently left in the trunk of a New York City taxicab. This exquisitely crafted box of wood and string seems to literally come alive in his capable hands, alternately singing, growling, clucking, sighing, laughing, crying. Kathryn Stott, actually an accomplished solo artist, is also the consummate accompanist: solid as her surname, she’s the perfect yin to Yo-Yo’s yang. He wears his emotions on his sleeve; the most outgoing part of her stage presence was her besequined outfit. Collaborators for three decades, Ma and Stott are completely in sync and still exude a youthful exuberance for music-making. Stott’s formidable technical prowess was on display in the Tarantella movement as she kept her wrists loose while tossing off a series of relaxed octaves, simultaneously managing to keep both intensity and dynamic levels controlled at all times. After a premature, surprisingly sustained outburst of applause following this penultimate movement by an apparently programmatically-challenged portion of the audience, the piece concluded with a stately and graceful Minuetto e finale.
And then we were off to sunnier climes as Ma and Stott presented a series of musical tapas from South America and Spain. Alma Brasileira by Brazilian composer Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959), Oblivion, composed by Argentinian Ástor Piazzolla (1921-1992), and Brazilian Camargo Guarnieri’s (1907-1993) Dansa Negra all consisted of a toothsome mélange of classical and local musical flavors and traditions. Pianist Stott’s rock-solid technique and control came to the fore in the Villa-Lobos, as her melody line sang out in stark relief, while Ma’s cello completed the mood of yearning and pathos. Part of the live concert experience, Ma had a minor mishap during the Piazzolla, as some of his music spilled from its stand. Undaunted, he soldiered on, handling the syncopated, dulcet tones of this sensual tango with aplomb, and finishing with a startlingly beautiful portamento. Actually, though both performers played from scores, Ma seemed to afford his only the briefest of occasional glances. His expressive countenance was typically turned either upward or towards the audience, eyes oftentimes closed.
Manuel DeFalla (1876-1946) somehow managed to distill seemingly every human emotion into his Siete Canciones Populares Españolas, G. 40 (Seven Popular Spanish Songs). These fully-formed miniatures require a sublime sense of touch and detail by their performers as they range from haunting to rousing to bitter. Both Ma and Stott were more than up to the challenge of this highly evocative music.
Speaking of challenging, Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus, one of eight sections of Quatuor pour la fin du temps by Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992), is psychologically draining for both performers and audience members alike, especially given its poignant backstory. This Quartet for the End of Time was actually created and first performed in the German POW camp in which Messiaen was imprisoned during the early 1940s. The deceptively simple structure, based on Messiaen’s so-called ‘modes of limited transposition,’ is mesmerizing, riveting, wrenching, deeply moving, and challenging to perform. The achingly delicate and tender minor third in the introduction was played to perfection by Ma, as he demonstrated phenomenal bow control. Stott brushed the keys of the piano with her right hand as she deftly handled the repetition and subtle dynamic changes that help lend this piece its power. Ma opted for a large, and seemingly appropriate, amount of vibrato; poor old Petunia was quivering. Following the piece’s completion, there was an unusually prolonged stretch of silence prior to the heartfelt applause.
Talk about a tough act to follow! Our musical journey concluded with some meat-and-potatoes (or perhaps Fleisch-und-Kartoffeln) Johannes Brahms (1833-1897): his lush and full-bodied Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Opus 108. Initially, this intellectually passionate/passionately intellectual music seemed downright lighthearted in comparison with the Messiaen. Natural evocations abounded, with hints of playful zephyrs, languid streams, and pizzicato raindrops. Cello and piano were equal partners in this virtuosic work, which showcased Stott’s expressive, graceful phrasing and Ma’s kaleidoscopic color and nuance.
Not surprisingly, a protracted standing ovation followed. Our enthusiasm was generously rewarded with three encores: Edward Elgar’s sweet, loving, and nostalgic Salut d’Amour, Opus 12, Cesar Camargo Mariano’s jazzilicious Cristal, and Camille Saint-Saëns’s pellucid and shimmering “The Swan” from Carnival of the Animals. Perfect bon-bons, playfully performed, refreshed our palates. The only thing missing was, perhaps, a bit of Bach on this the composer’s 329th birth anniversary.
This evening’s diverse program was the perfect exploratory vehicle for the ever-curious Yo-Yo Ma. His probing musical intellect is unceasing in its quest to stretch the expressive limits of his instrument, to delineate the detailed microcosm of each individual composition, and to fully connect with his myriad rapt listeners. The elegant, prodigiously talented, and likewise monosyllabically-surnamed Kathryn Stott was Ma’s ideal companion on this musical odyssey.