It has become cliché to refer to Yo-Yo Ma as a “rock star” of the cello. It is also incorrect. Yo-Yo Ma is much bigger than that. There are hundreds of rock stars, but only one Yo-Yo Ma.
No, Ma is more like Tiger Woods or the Dalai Lama—a titan of his art whose fame and reputation is so transcendent that people who have never heard him play a note revere him. If asked to name a classical musician, many people in this country could only come up with one name: Yo-Yo. The man isn’t just a cello player. For many people, Yo-Yo Ma is the cello. He is classical music.
Ma’s reputation precedes him so far that on the way to see him play one can’t help but wonder, Can the man possibly be that good? If Ma is a hundred times more famous than, say, Matt Haimovitz (another well-known cellist), is Ma a hundred times better? Of course not; fame doesn’t work that way. But there has to be something, you tell yourself—there must be a reason why the man has been elevated to something approaching a musical god.
Friday night at the Ordway, the hall was packed to the rafters for the 125th anniversary celebration of the Schubert Club. Most had paid more than a C-note for a ticket to be there and hear Ma play with his favorite piano accompanist, Katherine Stott. All, I imagine, were listening for the same thing—that special touch of magic that makes Yo-Yo Ma so great.
Did they hear it?
Well, of course. One of the nice things about classical music is that it’s impossible to fake. One can quibble over Ma’s technique (hardly flawless) and interpretations (he often overplays), but at the end of the evening none of it matters, because it is impossible to deny the most endearing thing about Ma: his passion and intensity.
Ma is one of those rare musicians who gives you 100 percent on every note, and will give you 110 percent if he can find it. He grimaces and squints. The veins in his neck and jaw pop out when he plays, and he attacks the strings so violently at times that he looks like he’s going to fall out of his seat. During Shostakovich’s "Sonata in D Minor," Ma practically shredded an entire bow, snapping so many horsehairs that he kept having to reach up and snap them off lest they slow him down on the next furious assault. Sometimes his head snaps so hard that you’re afraid it’s going to pop off. At other times, he curls around his cello like an octopus and stares at his fingers like a man possessed. During softer passages, though, he will often lean way back in his chair and look up to the heavens with an expression that says, “Whoa, look what’s coming out of my fingers now!” Even he seems amazed.
Yet for all of this animation, the music flows out of Ma so naturally that one doesn’t get the impression he practices and learns like everyone else. His bodily contortions look more like someone who is trying to figure out how to get his body out of the way so that this astonishingly beautiful music can come through. Yo-Yo Ma doesn’t play music; the music plays him.
Last night’s program kicked off with "Sonata in A Minor for Arpeggionne and Piano," which was appropriate for the anniversary occasion. Ma further endeared himself to audience by dedicating the evening to the memory of former Schubert Club president Bruce Carlson, who died from leukemia last year. Ma also played “Le Grand Tango,” by Argentinian composer Astor Piazzola, “Bodas de Prata & Quatro Canto,” by the Brazilian composing team of Egberto Gismonti and Geraldo Carneiro, and “Sonata in A Major for Violin and Piano,” by Cesar Franck. Ma and Stott also did three short encores, capped by the popular student piece, “The Swan,” by Saint-Saëns.
All of which were played superbly, with just enough magic to make everyone in the place a believer in the legend of Yo-Yo Ma—even me.