Yo-Yo Ma - and pianist - shined at Schubert Club's 125th

  • Article by: Larry Fuchsberg
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • November 10, 2007 - 8:48 PM

With or without his cello, Yo-Yo Ma is just the sort of guest you'd want at your birthday party: genial, urbane, as unpretentious as a star can be. He can command or deflect the spotlight as he chooses.

Ma did both on Friday at the Ordway Center, in an astutely plotted recital (with the stylized palm trees of the Minnesota Opera's current Rossini production as an incongruous backdrop) that marked the 125th anniversary of St. Paul's Schubert Club. He brought to the festivities not only his wonderfully multihued instrument but also the splendid English pianist Kathryn Stott. In brief remarks to the sellout crowd, he dedicated the performance to the late Bruce Carlson, the Schubert Club's longtime executive director.

With the death of Mstislav Rostropovich in April, Ma has become the world's most visible cellist. He could make a lucrative career playing nothing but a handful of big concertos. But like Rostropovich, whose ghost seemed to hover near the palms on Friday, Ma is impatient with the repetitive programs of a touring virtuoso -- witness his extended forays into the musics of Central Asia (the fascinating Silk Road project), Appalachia and Latin America.

Two Latin selections, including Astor Piazzolla's "Le Grand Tango" (a Rostropovich commission), spiced Ma's program of sonatas by Shostakovich, César Franck and, fittingly, Schubert (the "Arpeggione").

Of these, only the Shostakovich (1934) was originally conceived for the cello. Rostropovich's recording of the piece, with the composer at the piano, has a fierce, idiosyncratic presence that Ma and Stott made no effort to reproduce. Yet their account, darkly elegant, was every bit as compelling as the Russians'.

The Schubert piece, sometimes reduced to a slender thread of vibrato-free tone, was remarkable for its moments of inward rapture. The Franck, written for the violin but often poached, was another matter. I wish cellists would give this piece a rest. What can sound ecstatic on the violin is apt to sound merely overwrought on the cello.

"Collaborative pianists," as they're now called, are usually relegated to the final paragraph. Stott deserves better. Adept at accompanying cellists -- she was last in town with Truls Mørk, another superlative player -- she made the evening richly conversational. And it was she, not Ma, who got the melting style of Elgar's "Salut d'amour" -- another purloined violin piece, offered as an encore -- exactly right.

Larry Fuchsberg writes often about music.

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