The gala Friday night audience had come to heap praise on the hall and the artistic director through the ministrations of a certain luxury brand performer who, I am pleased to note, has attained a serenity, clarity, and economy of tonal and visual production. He no longer evidenced the head bobbing and orgasmic exaggeration that were conspicuous in his youth to make his artistic points. Instead he presented with a seigneurially arched back and a countenance beseeching the heavens in benign patrician reserve. Yet the ironic self-deprecation that I first witnessed 40 years ago is still apparent. I’ll never forget the cellist’s reaction when a grande dame in the receiving line said to the 20-something year-old, “Maestro, you’re such a national resource.” Not missing a beat, he answered, “Ma’am, if I were a national resource, I would fill your gas tank.”
On the occasion of his debut in honor of the fifth anniversary of Rockport Music’s Shalin Liu Center [more here about David Deveau’s 20 years as artistic director], Yo Yo Ma made an entrance with a sweeping recognition of the gorgeous back wall seascape before he briefly and jokingly turned his chair to face the water as if to serenade the gods of the sea instead of those in the gallery.
And what a different opening night it was from the BSO’s frothy extravagance last September. The program that Deveau worked out with Ma had no cheap thrills. The pleasures it afforded came through a deeper contemplation of demanding solo works of Bach and Crumb; while the Apollo on stage serenaded the full house, the Apollo on a chariot aloft brought the sun to its horizon through a rapturous hour.
Opening with the Allegretto from Ahmed Adnan Saygun’s Partita for Solo Cello (1954), Ma’s Montagnana resonated beautifully and without effort in the quietest moments and bloomed to abundant presence in the flattering acoustic achieved by Lawrence Kirkegaard. It was a heavenly marriage of instrument and space.
In the short Turkish folk song inflected movement, Saygun’s affect ranged from concentrated reflectiveness through mystery and depth to an excitement which led attaca to Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G Major. Ma has recorded the six suites three times—each outing completely different. And we suspect his live performances also maintain an improvisatory freshness as this one did. In this traversal, Ma brought a refinement of tone and deed which renders any critical carping irrelevant. By comparison, all other cellists draw medieval cross-bows over rubber bands. The Sarabande had a stateliness with destination that could only come from an Apollonian advocate of stature. The Gigue had a dignified sprightliness that was Ma’s own—we can’t quite figure out how the perfectly placed slurs and accents somehow made the world of George Crumb inevitable.
But luckily this was not Crumb’s world of quarter-tones, chance and prepared pianos. His Sonata For Solo Cello (certainly not in a key though it had virtual keys) of 1955 was idiomatic for the cello, employing virtuosic devices from double-stop pizzicatos, to juicy operatic portamenti and even unashamedly suggested virtual tunes. It had moments of grace and delicacy as well as those of animation and expression as the movement titles suggested. The identifiable theme and its understandable variations constituted a near moto perpetuo animated with intellectual and executional delight. The omnivorous cellist brought the whole off as though it were a warhorse.
Here follow a couple of brief asides. I have observed for years that the longer it takes a performer to tune, and the more often she tunes, the worse the performance is going to be. This never fails. Ma tuned nary a single time through his demanding hour. What does that tell you about his work? And it was nice to have no microphones interposed between us and the artist.
Ma’s well-argued dialectic on Bach’s third suite came with the fervor of a Transcendentalist retuning to advocate for absolute music of the waters if not the spheres. After 40 years with this Bach, Ma seems to see it through a darker glass. The joys of youthful chase seemed to have succumbed to the more autumnal glories of cherished repose. Nothing was exaggerated and nothing was slighted. Every articulation and inflection reflected years of continuous thought and discovery. Ma sang the aria with the profoundest evocations of our spiritual yearnings for affirmation.
Bach has yielded his secrets to Ma, who takes great delight in conveying them to his proselytes. As Ma concluded his single encore, Casals signature anti-Fascist Catalan Song of the Birds [arr. by Sally Beamish], the sky brightened and a sympathetic slanting ray illuminated the humanity of great art.