With over 75 albums and 15 Grammys under his belt, Yo-Yo Ma is considered by many to be the best living cellist. Last Sunday, he graced the Bing Concert Hall with his presence. Accompanied by pianist Kathryn Stott, Yo-Yo Ma performed Stravinsky and Brahms, along with other composers’ pieces, to a crowd that included community members, professors, administrators and a sizable number of lucky Stanford students. My expectations for Yo-Yo Ma’s performance were stereotypical: I expected a virtuoso. However, several realizations led me to believe that Yo-Yo Ma is much more than that:
I didn’t expect to see him in the first place. We all know Stanford is awesome and resources abound, but it doesn’t provide some of the artistic and cultural opportunities afforded by an urban location. Lucky for us, the Bings have helped to rectify this situation by bringing a world-class concert hall to Stanford and, with it, cultural icons like Yo-Yo Ma. But bringing a world-renowned musician to campus is one thing. Allowing students to pay $10 to sit on stage and listen to him? That’s quite another.
There is how everyone plays the cello, and then there is how Yo-Yo Ma plays the cello. Technically, his playing was impeccable, but I was most surprised by the variety of ways he created sounds with the cello beyond bowing. At certain points during the concert, Yo-Yo Ma both fingerpicked and strummed his cello like a guitar, even hitting the wooden part of his bow against the main body of the instrument.
Even the simplest notes were utterly captivating. When Yo-Yo Ma performed Olivier Messiaen’s “Praise to the Eternity of Jesus,” a slow and stately piece about the end of the universe accompanied by a few basic chords on the piano, the purity and emotionality of his tone kept me on the edge of my seat. The concentrated silence of over 800 people listening filled Bing Concert Hall, and with every movement of his bow, they breathed with him.
Yo-Yo Ma plays with infectious joy. I had imagined Yo-Yo Ma as a man with a sense of grandeur about him, as if the centuries-old music he plays had somehow kept him rooted in the 17th century. However, Yo-Yo Ma brought intensity and pure passion to every song he played. His incorruptible joy for music is expressed so effortlessly and contagiously. In Yo-Yo Ma’s hands, a cello fulfills its potential, becoming an instrument in the truest sense of the word.
He played not one, but two encores.Yo-Yo Ma decided to bestow more of his music on a crowd that wouldn’t stop clapping. To the shock and delight of the audience, he performed an encore, explaining before he began to play that Bing is a “treasure of a place.” When the standing ovation and clapping continued, he brought out his cello again, waving and flashing a thumbs up to the crowd of cheering fans. Yo-Yo Ma is, in essence, a classical music rock star.