Taming the beast

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The Independent Culture

Yo-Yo Ma, Barbican Hall London

Yo-Yo Ma, Barbican Hall London

By Robert Maycock

4 November 1999

The full house faced a single chair and a tall vase of flowers on an otherwise empty stage. Yo-Yo Ma was about to play unaccompanied. Logic suggested the space was too big for one cello, but the atmosphere said otherwise. If a musician chooses to take on the mighty sonata by Zoltan Kodaly in such an arena, and not just take it on but make the encounter the evening's main event, he is giving more than a concert - something rather between sport and ritual, a music aficionado's equivalent of the bullfight.

Not only performers have fallen in the face of this formidable beast of a work. Meant as a challenge to the cellist's technique and artistry, all too often it becomes a challenge to the audience who have to imagine what it might sound like through an onslaught of approximated notes and failed gestures. It ought to be an epic of solo cello playing, by turns defiant, brooding, flamboyant and colossal. Nobody can get every moment in tune, but can they put the whole half-hour into shape? By the time he hurled out the final cascade of multiple stops and arpeggios, everybody knew that Ma was the man to bring it off.

The crowd was on its feet cheering as he paraded for his curtain calls. So much had English inhibitions dissolved that he could democratise the choice of encores. Bach, he proposed, and people shouted out their favourite solo suite until a consensus emerged. For the next item he ran a short, civilised debate.

In the past two decades Ma, one of classical music's individuals, has emerged as the first to present a cosmopolitan Asian identity in a field where his predecessors have studiously Westernised themselves. His next project is to create and promote a repertoire around the idea of the Silk Road, the old overland trading route from Asia to the West.

His recital programme, on one level a straight promotion for his current CD, also played with cultural cross-currents. Mark O'Connor's Appalachia Waltz, a low-keyed but haunting opener, translated folk fiddling into concert-hall terms. Bright Sheng's Seven Tunes Heard in China did a more thorough job with traditional melodies from the composer's travels, evoking the sounds of Chinese instruments as well as their tunes with an unshowy virtuosity in Western classical ways.

The surprise item was an intense lament by David Wilde, who is more familiar as a pianist. Called The Cellist of Sarajevo, after Vedran Smailovic who famously played under siege, it risked being overshadowed by the story's emotions. But it succeeded powerfully in its own terms, with a simple, obsessively rotating melody that enclosed a fierce climax.