About halfway through Tuesday’s concert in Woolsey Hall featuring cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the audience started to laugh. Ma, proper in an orange tie and round glasses, sat onstage with Aldo Parisot, a professor at the Yale School of Music and the University’s longest-serving faculty member. Between pieces from Bach and Haydn, the two had what had been billed by press releases as a “lively and informative conversation.” Instead of something predictable, though — with prepared questions and friendly sips of chilled water—Parisot added a bit of absurdity. The 94-year-old yelled into the microphone, interrupting and answering questions that weren’t asked. It felt spontaneous and messy in a way that Ma’s resume, including more than 15 Grammys and appearances from Carnegie Hall to Sesame Street, often doesn’t.
At one point, cutting off Ma as he began a question, Parisot waved his arms and shouted, “I told you, time does not exist! It’s an illusion!” Even though the “conversation” turned into an ad hoc stand-up routine, what Parisot said felt true, especially after Ma lifted his bow off the cello’s strings at the end of the night. Time is an illusion when Yo-Yo Ma plays — not because of his treatment of each note, but because he knows how to demand the attention of his listeners. A concerto feels as if it has flown by in seconds, and as classical music tries to expand its audience and establish a footing with young people, that transcendent effect is worth much more than double-digit gold trophies.
Benefiting the School of Music’s cello program, Tuesday’s performance let the cellist flex his Ma-scles with a duet, an unaccompanied suite and a concerto. He played the first, Jean-Baptiste Barrière’s Sonata in G major for two cellos, with Yale cello professor Ole Akahoshi. The light glinted off the two instruments, making them look like small amber jewels reflected in the shiny black stage, but their sound filled the space. The two passed baroque melodies back and forth, friendly and cordial. Then, aggressively, Ma began the third movement with a strong, low note like an unexpected punch to the face. (The audience giggled then, too.) Akahoshi replied with as much force, and the duet ran off until the last notes, when the fight ended with Ma and Akahoshi holding their hands in the air, both winners.
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suite No. 3 for solo cello, one of the big fish of the instrument’s repertoire, came next. Ma has likely played this piece countless times, and his interpretations of Bach are everywhere; search “cello” on Spotify, and his recordings of the suites will be some of the top results. At Woolsey, each phrase — from the wandering cascades of the Prélude to the folk-like grit of the Gigue — flowed automatically from Ma’s fingers but still consumed his whole body. His feathery hair bounced against his forehead as he threw himself at the strings. Sometimes, he pushed his cello away as if it were too energetic to control.
The same hyper-familiarity came through in the concerto, Joseph Haydn’s first for the cello. Parisot conducted Ma and musicians from the School of Music. The piece has relentless drive and a classical, petticoated bounce, and Ma’s version was wickedly quick and expressive. He attacked each phrase, swelling before immediately pulling back, only to pounce on the next with more speed. While colorful, his emphases made it difficult at times to grasp what the music’s details tried to say. Intricate passages passed by in blurs, and while I could marvel at his athleticism, I didn’t have time to appreciate what had happened seconds before.
Despite its resultant whiplash, Ma’s style has hidden advantages. Just as Parisot remarked about timebeing an illusion, Ma is able to package big, complex pieces into digestible bursts. Whether a short, lively duet or a 20-minute piece, his performances always feel immediate and alive, and those qualities are crucial for much of classical music. They make even slowly unfolding pieces, like a six-part cello suite, accessible to the shortest of attention spans. They are the reason for Ma’s success with everyone, from musicians to presidents to children.
In the middle of the Bach, as if I hadn’t already been convinced, Parisot’s comment made sense again. Between bow strokes, a police siren began to wail behind Woolsey’s dim walls. For a second, the sound seemed alien, as if I had never heard it before. It took a second to break free from the magnetic pull of Ma’s playing to recognize it. But when the sound faded, I was sucked right back in.