Yo-Yo Ma isn't Superman; he just seems like it. During the cellist's Sunday recital with pianist Kathryn Stott at Stanford's Bing Concert Hall, one had the sense that nothing can go wrong when he performs. It's his ease and soulfulness, a unique combination. It makes everything feel right.
Stott, too, is a consummate player, and this program managed to be as light-footed as it was stirring. Longtime musical partners, these two musicians are like champion dancers who anticipate each other's moves: the slightest bends and turns or dramatic leaps. They listen and respond, shape and give way. Their playing is elegant and from the heart.
On Sunday, they hopped back and forth across repertory from Europe and Latin America, beginning with a reading of Igor Stravinsky's "Suite italienne" from "Pulcinella." Playing Gregor Piatigorsky's transcription for cello and piano, it was best at its most quiet: the gorgeous sliding cello chords of the Serenata.
Soon after, the duo played Heitor Villa-Lobos's "Alma brasileira" ("Soul of Brazil"), the fifth of his "Choros" series, which was sorrowfully lyric -- though perhaps not as sorrowful as Astor Piazzolla's famous "Oblivion." Its dramatic melody was drawn out, milked and embellished (though not overly so) by Ma, whose final notes, grazed and whispered, were kind of incredible.
The centerpiece of the program's first half was Manuel de Falla's "Siete Canciones Populares Españolas" ("Seven Popular Spanish Songs"). "Asturiana," the third song, achieved a just-before-daybreak quietness, something close to silence, conveying both possibility and lament. "Jota," the fourth song, slowed in the manner of a tango: time seemed to stretch out, stop and start again. "Cancion," the sixth song, swiftly came and went, a love-struck dream.
Sounds terrific, right? It was, though this gorgeous new hall, acoustically speaking, can be a challenge.
This was my fourth concert in 842-seat Bing, which opened Jan. 11, and I once again found the sound to be idiosyncratic. I was seated in a terrace just left of center, where the sound lacked immediacy. It was not so warm or full as one would hope it to be, especially in a chamber-sized venue like this one, where the seats surround and cradle the stage. The sound was somewhat masked, as if arriving from a distance, though I was seated only about 50 feet from the performers.
Perhaps Ma and Stott were taking the gauge of the place, acoustically. Early in the program, forte passages in the Stravinsky were muddy, especially if Ma vigorously strummed chords in his instrument's lower register. (And if Stott's chording simultaneously took her into the bass register, that was a double whammy.) By the recital's second half, the duo achieved far more consistent clarity of sound, though, again, the hall didn't embrace the musicians, didn't bring out enough of their warmth.
The clearest and most profound performance of the evening followed intermission: Olivier Messiaen's "Louange à l'éternité de Jésus" ("Praise to the Eternity of Jesus"), from his Quartet for the End of Time, composed while the Frenchman was interned in a German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. With Ma coaxing and then wresting the broad, long-noted melody over Stott's tolling chords, this work came through as a deep interior cry, magnifying and falling across metaphorical distances. The performance turned Bing into a chapel.
Next was a superb reading of Brahms' Violin Sonata in D minor, arranged for cello.
Stott's touch and textures were clean and penetrating -- free and airy, with space somehow surrounding each note, even when the pianist was playing cascades of them. Combined with Ma's own free and passionate song, the Adagio achieved a luscious sense of romance, though tempered by that other part of Brahms, his reserve. The finale built to a fury, and the duo seemed to have mastered the hall; you could hear every note.
Amid a standing ovation, Ma dedicated the first of the duo's encores -- Edward Elgar's "Salut d'amour" ("Love's Greeting") -- to Peter and Helen Bing, the hall's benefactors, who were in the audience. The applause was huge; the lovefest, sadly, was drawing to a close.