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Union: Yo-Yo Ma

J. S. Bach: Aria from Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Peter Lieberson: Three Variations for Cello and Piano
John Corigliano: Fancy on a Bach Air
Peter Schickele: Goldberg Variations II
Richard Danielpour: Fantasy Variation
J. S. Bach: Aria from Goldberg Variations, BWV 988
Shostakovich: Sonata in D Minor, Op. 40
Astor Piazzolla: Soledad
Astor Piazzolla: Libertango
Astor Piazzolla: Tango Remembrances
Astor Piazzolla: Tango Suite
Astor Piazzolla: Milonga sin palabras
Astor Piazzolla: Le Grand Tango

Yo-Yo Ma, cello
Kathryn Stott, piano


Interesting concerts by great luminaries are a matter not only of how they play -- one expects that to be good -- but also of what they play. Ear to the rail, I was surprised to hear several audience grumblings about cellist Yo-Yo Ma's program, which included New Goldberg Variations (1997), Shostakovich's Sonata in D Minor, Op. 40, and a selection of works by the Argentinian tango master Astor Piazzolla. But no complaints from me; I thought this was a near-perfect program, especially for superstar Ma, who has played standard repertory plenty of times in his seven previous concerts at the Union.

The opening work was a compendium of new music by four composers in memory of one Robert Goldberg (1944-1994), drawing its inspiration from J. S. Bach's Goldberg Variations, BWV 988. Bach is a hard act to follow, especially when the famous aria that begins and ends the masterwoork for harpsichord is rendered by the solo piano, framing the seven new compositions at either end. Pianist Kathryn Stott did that with charm and great musical finesse. Composers rising to the challenge of the memorial commission were Peter Lieberson, John Corigliano, Peter Schickele and Richard Danielpour. As different as their styles are, the ghost of Bach somehow embraced them, fusing the whole into something quite extraordinary. Ma and Stott both brought deep respect and introspection to their playing.

I sometimes find Ma's playing a bit too pretty, lacking dramatic intensity. The Shostakovich sonata, however, was everything it should be, whether it was the palpably aching lyricism of its long thematic arches in slow sections or the driving rhythms of its quick ones. It is a real bear to play, the more so given the very fleet tempo of the finale. Here Stott stood out as especially remarkable.

It's hard to pin down exactly what Piazzolla's irresistible appeal comes from. Perhaps it's an underlying lyrical pensiveness or the somewhat mysterious outcry of tango's rhythmic snap. Transporting this music to cello and piano seemed risky, but you certainly couldn't tell it from the performances, which were by turns seductive and ebullient. In this music, Ma did achieve high intensity, and Stott provided plenty of verve as well.

The hall was full to the rafters, long sold out, and the applause was appropriately enthusiastic, not just for Ma and Stott, but for cello recitals, which have been featured in the Union's concert series 44 times now.

Isthmus, January, 2000
Copyright 2000 Jess Anderson

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