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Ma’s Backward Cello Bash


The cellist earlier this summer (Michael J. Lutch photo)

The Tanglewood parking attendants were busy early on August 13th considering that the concert to take place at 8pm was chamber music in Ozawa Hall. There was a wine tasting going on, so perhaps the early crowds were not anticipated solely for the music. Who knows for sure? The program featured one of the world’s most popular classical artists, Yo-Yo Ma, along with a group of other cellists, for an unusual program billed only as “A Distant Mirror.” The minimal description in the Tanglewood brochure suggested that it would in some sense consist of early music, without details beyond a focus on the 16th and 17th centuries. The title could have implied Barbara Tuchman’s 14th century, but the performers chose it to mean only long ago and far away.

Over the decades Yo-Yo Ma not only has become a favorite performer of the cello but has extended his activities beyond chamber music and concertos, with extraordinary breadth, as if to see what usage could be made of the cello in just about every aspect of the world’s musics, from Appalachia to the Silk Trail. Clearly audiences have learned to trust him to offer music superbly played, with the exquisite technique, expressive warmth, and sheer joy that have always been so prominent a part of his persona. Even with only a vague idea of what they will hear, audiences throng. Ozawa Hall was packed, and the lawn outside the rear barn door held as many people as I have ever seen there.

I was fortunate enough to hear Yo-Yo Ma in a cello-piano recital when he was only 13. I learned his age after the fact. As I sat there in a state of wonder, I guessed from the maturity and expressiveness of his playing that he could not be under 18, though I considered that the possibility simply because his appearance would not have allowed for anything older. I was confident in any case that I would be hearing his name again. I doubt anyone could have anticipated the arc of his extraordinary career. But when he did reappear as a concert artist at a professional level during his Harvard years, he quickly established the reputation that has grown to such popularity.

Indeed, just a week earlier, he had performed all five of the Beethoven sonatas with pianist Emanuel Ax in the Shed, which was nearly filled and attracted a large crowd on the lawn. How likely is it, in the history of those works, that there was any other occasion when perhaps 12,000 people heard them live at one time?

But Beethoven is Beethoven, and early music—especially when specified in only the most general terms—appeals to a smaller population. Still, it was Yo-Yo Ma organizing the event and appearing with three other solo cellists and the members of the Boston Cello Quartet, plus a percussionist. Such an ensemble surely suggested an unusual program. And that, indeed, was what we heard. Ostensibly it featured 16th– and 17th-century music, a phrase that surely implies early to most listeners, including this musicologist whose training focused on Renaissance Europe. Most of the works were, to be sure, arranged by modern musicians, most of whom were playing in the performance, but the thematic and harmonic ideas were drawn from that earlier period and from a wider geographic span.

The program began with a procession of eight cellos and percussion marching down the aisle of Ozawa Hall, the cellists wearing straps that allowed them to carry and play their instrument at the same time. At the rear door, Ma got the audience’s attention by calling out a Shakespeare line: “If music be the food of love, play on.” Of course, Orsino’s remark opening Twelfth Night was in a different tone, the hope that surfeit of music would sour not only his taste for it but also the passion wreaking havoc in his breast. I doubt whether anyone in Ozawa Hall felt they heard too much: judging from the wildly enthusiastic response, most would’ve been happy to have the concert go on another hour or two.

The procession was to the tune of a traditional Inca melody, arranged by Mike Block, a member of the Silk Road company, and one of the performers in the present concert. Most of the works that followed were arranged by Block, by Boston Cello Quartet member Blaise Déjardin, or by Giovanni Sollima, an Italian composer who has worked with a wide range of contemporary musicians. Along with Monica Leskovar , his wife and herself a distinguished cellist, Sollima and Block joined Ma to form the principal quartet of cellos for the evening. Percussionist Shane Shanahan, who has also performed everything from contemporary music, jazz, and rock to early music, played a variety of instruments in diverse styles.

The Boston Cello Quartet, consisting of Déjardin, Adam Esbensen, Mihail Jojatu, and Alexandre Lecarme, played several numbers of their own and joined the others for the beginning and end of the evening. Their first group was perhaps the most familiar music, at least to performers of 16th-century instrumental work, being a selection of four dances from the 3rd Book of Danceries by Claude Gervaise, editor of a series of popular collections in the 16th century. These were arranged by Déjardin.

The rest of the program ranged across Europe and Asia, and was performed by different groupings of the four principal cellists with percussion in everything from solo to quartet combinations. One of the composers, Ali Ufkî Bey, was Polish, despite the name. Colin Jakobsen wrote Mirror for a Prince, an arrangement of 16th– and 17th-century Persian melodies. The second half opened with a Chinese medley of traditional melodies from the historical period of this concert, including an invitation to Mass, composed under the influence of the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci, who spent decades proselytizing in China in the 16th century. A modern composer was represented as well, Mehmet Ali Sanlikol, and he was in the audience. The Blue Typhoon, a commission from the Boston Cello Quartet, represented the traditions of Arabic music. Older contrapuntal compositions illustrated the important genre of the chaconne in Portugal, Spain, and Italy. A work by Giovanni Sollima drew upon even older traditions while including distinctly modern performing effects.

At the end of the concert, vigorous audience demand brought the full ensemble back onstage for an extended encore that began with an arrangement of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasy on a Theme of Thomas Tallis which dissolved into a distinctly Spanish number filled with hemiolas, which got feet tapping and hands clapping with great enthusiasm.

Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.

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