Yo-Yo Ma Wows At Woolsey

Harold Shapiro PhotoAll over New Haven, there are musical moments where it feels as if the composers are in the room. A story unfolds in the small space of a black box theater, high school auditorium, or large concert hall. Beethoven sashays across the floorboards; Bach deribs and juliennes his movements in the kitchen; Bartók recounts postwar Europe in movement after movement. Mickey brings out his cape and cauldron and suddenly, thick, misty waves of sound are springing in midair, sparks of color flying across the stage.

And then there is something entirely different and much rarer. The frame freezes. Voices become lower and still to a whisper. Movement slows. Flickers of color roll themselves back to the corners of the room, and the audience is left with a spare wood floor, on which almost anything can happen. In this world, it is the instrument, very nearly moving by its own volition, that sings its whole heart out to you, teeth bared, gums glittering, lips pointed heavenward. 

This is the kind of music Yo-Yo Ma, holding his cello as if it were a weightless and necessary extension of his body, played Tuesday evening to an audience of over a thousand when he took the stage at Yale’s Woolsey Hall in a benefit concert for the Aldo Parisot Cello Enrichment Fund.

A yellower-than-yellow light fell onto Ma’s face, bathing it in marigold as he leaned into the adagio section of Jean-Baptiste Barrière’s Sonata for Two Cellos, Book 4, No. 4, lips pursed as his cello let loose a long, pensive sigh.

An arc of green tiles above his head gleamed, opening their white-gilt eyes one by one to the music. Swinging his bow wildly, Ma cocked his head to the side, leaving room for Ole Akahoshi to unleash a bright flurry of notes on his own cello. Reams of brown and red velvet unrolled themselves across the stage and down the aisles, to where viewers sat transfixed. And sensing his opening, Mr. Ma leaned in — all in — grinning widely.

Ma’s playing is soulful and deeply genuine, delicate and mature enough to take a backseat to other musicians, as he did momentarily with Akahoshi and members of the Yale Philharmonia, but robust and confident — ready to scale musical skyscrapers with the change of a note in the same number.

Which is to say, his cello was of course a cello, but so much more than that. During the Prélude of Bach’s Cello Suite No. 3 in C Major, BWV 1009, it became an old woman, telling her life story to an empty room; during his Bourrée I, a deep-throated synthesizer; and by Gigue, it was a whole restrained but joyful string section, playing the end of a sunny outdoor concert somewhere.

This liminal space, stunningly spare while also vivid and voluptuous, is not only where Ma and his cello live; it’s where the concert found and retained an incredible sense of propulsion.

The audience felt it, too. “For making music accessible for people who might never have been able to hear beauty, I thank you,” said Robert Blocker, Dean of the Yale School of Music, presenting Ma and Parisot with Sanford medals shortly after intermission.

Harold Shapiro PhotoA lifetime student of world music and an instructor to his core, Ma has a commitment to adding other voices — lots of them — to the musical conversation. His solo and duet performances were supplemented by a discussion with longtime cellist and Yale educator Aldo Parisot and a final collaboration with members of the Yale Philharmonia.

While the latter, a performance of Franz Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in C Major, Hob. VIIB:1, left the audience standing and stomping its feet and displayed the performers’ ability to listen to each other and play—really play—with a united, nuanced voice, it was the former that may stick with audience members for years to come.

Why, exactly? Let’s just call it the power of nerdy celebrity. Often holding his own mic gently to Parisot’s mouth, Ma assumed the role of not only charming and sensitive student and expert musician, but ever-conscious jokester. 

“So you’re sixty,” he addressed Parisot, who is in fact 93 and has been teaching at Yale since 1946, to laughs from the audience. “What I want to know is how you’re so happy.”

Parisot didn’t miss a beat. “Everything that I dreamed of in my life came true,” he said. 

“And what I want to know,” Parisot added, “is if you’ll perform at my funeral when I’m 61.”

“No,” Ma replied. He grinned slyly. “I want to know if you’ll conduct the Yale Cellos at mine.”

To find out more about performances at Woolsey Hall and the Yale School of Music, visit their calendar.

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