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Music Review

Spare Change for a Gala

Yo-Yo Ma got much--for Irvine Barclay and Philharmonic Society--from a bare stage and Bach.

November 20, 1998|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A recital of three of Bach's Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, as took place Wednesday at the Irvine Barclay Theatre, is emphatically not what leaps to mind as the centerpiece of a gala fund-raiser.

After all, power players cum arts benefactors aren't necessarily musical cognoscenti who thrive on such lofty fare. Bach's tunes in these suites might be hummable, yet they also provide heady underpinnings for Platonic ideals, conveying less sentiment, more the height and depth of human experience.

Such a program isn't much to look at, either: a man, a chair, a cello . . .

Without Yo-Yo Ma sharing the bill with Bach--OK, taking top billing--such an evening would be an admirable gamble at best. But who among composers save Bach--and who among today's performers save Ma--can extract so much from a bow and four cello strings?

Leave it to Ma--that most involved and involving of musicians, that most affable, seemingly sincere and guileless of superstars--to guide any and all comers into the rarefied air one finds at the pinnacle of the musical genre.

As it is, the co-presenters--the theater and the Philharmonic Society of Orange County--made an inspired choice. With evening packages that cost up to $1,000 a head--recital-only tickets ran $85--the two organizations will share a net profit of $130,000. Months ago, a goal in the neighborhood of $500,000 had been bandied about.

Still, with a respectable take for the evening, donors were probably breaking out the bubbly at a post-program dinner party at Metropolis, across the street from UC Irvine.

Artistically, there was a whole lot to celebrate as well.

Ma has been all over the map of late--successfully dabbling in musics from Appalachia (notably a certain waltz) to Argentina (Astor Piazzolla's tangos).

But the Paris-born, New York-raised Ma was weaned on Bach. He's played these suites since childhood. He's recorded them twice, most recently reevaluating them in conjunction with an Emmy Award-winning PBS series ("Yo-Yo Ma: Inspired by Bach") that aired in the spring. He surveyed the complete suites in Los Angeles as recently as March.

On this outing, he played the suites in G, D Minor and D (Nos. 1, 2 and 6, respectively). The opening Prelude threatened an expressive goo fest, but thereafter Ma steered a persuasive course through probing Allemandes; achingly beautiful Sarabandes; spirited Courantes, and gutsy, heart-stoppingly propulsive Gigues.

He never took the quick and easy way out with repeats, instead approaching each as a new opportunity to explore greater and seemingly spontaneous expression.

These suites can be objective, austere, and--in the wrong hands--boring. Reveling in the process, Ma gave them a supremely human face. (When a baby in the audience squealed, the unflappable Ma, who has two children, smiled and directed his playing toward the tot.) Even his passage work kept attention rapt.

Would that he'd been playing the remaining three suites the next night . . .

Ma did a single encore, a solo version of fiddler Mark O'Connor's aforementioned "Appalachia Waltz" (which Ma recorded in a 1996 chart-topping collaboration with O'Connor and bassist Edgar Meyer). Although initially it seemed an odd choice, ultimately it had much in common with those transporting Sarabandes.

Ma returns to the Barclay with the Mark Morris Dance Group in April.

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