A musical riddle: What do you get when you combine a eighteenth century Stradivarius cello, a nineteenth century music hall, and a twentieth century Chinese-American? It’s Yo-Yo Ma inaugurating the 2005 – 2006 Bank of
Seated on the bare stage of Symphony Hall, performing three of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cello Suites, Mr. Ma demonstrated why he is the world’s greatest living cellist. With deft dexterity, Ma’s fingers danced over the strings coaxing forth a bold and beautiful sound that wafted throughout the hall without amplification.
Composed early in Bach’s career, the six cello suites may be the first ever to utilize this continuo instrument for solo work. Each suite begins with a prelude, and then showcases five movements of typical eighteenth century dance styles, including allemande, sarabande, courante, gigue, minuet, bourrée, and gavotte.
The C-major Suite, No. 3 BWV 1009, allows the cello (tuned in the same key) to sing. By his smile and relaxed posture, it was easy to see that Yo-Yo Ma was having fun with this piece. The highlight of the evening was Suite No. 5 in C-minor BWV 1011. The arrangement of dance rhythms played in a minor key is haunting, conjuring images of the macabre dance of Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride.
The virtuoso performance drew ten curtain calls for Mr. Ma, who appeared without his cello on the tenth time out, as the other nine resulted in three encore performances. First, Yo-Yo played a piece from Mark O’Connor’s Appalachia Waltz followed by another round of raucous ovations. The second encore was a piece from Ma’s Silk Road Project. After more bravos, Ma played what many were waiting for, the Prelude movement from Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G-major, BWV 1007.
There was but one complaint for the entire evening. The audience clapped between the first two movements of the opening suite. To some this may seem a minor thing, but it is not. Even Mr. Ma was forced to correct the audience, not in words, but by shortening the pause between movements. The audience caught on, and the unnecessary applause were finished. If