Yo-Yo Ma is one of the most recognized, talked and written about musical artists of our time. His phenomenal talent not only includes a unique virtuosity, but also a keen interest in diverse musically related subjects and activities, from his Silk Road Project to his activities with the President’s Committee on the Arts & Humanities and as a UN Messenger of Peace. It is a testament to Ma’s power as a musical force that, despite the typhoon-related weather raging outside the concert hall, the auditorium was packed to capacity with aficionados who had braved the elements just to witness his extraordinary musicianship in performance. The roar that greeted him when he walked on stage was more thunderous and deafening than if the entire, wildly popular Seattle Seahawks football team had unexpectedly appeared. Such is the magic of Yo-Yo Ma.

Yo-Yo Ma © Jason Bell
Yo-Yo Ma
© Jason Bell

Ma rewarded the intrepid Seattle Symphony audience with a dazzling performance of Joseph Haydn’s Cello Concerto no. 1 in C major. This early work, which was discovered relatively recently, and was written for Haydn’s close friend and colleague Joseph Weigl, beautifully portrays the radiant atmosphere of the composer’s early symphonies numbers 6, 7, and 8, nicknamed “Morning”, “Noon” and “Evening”.

Most importantly, the C major concerto, written in a crossover Baroque-classical mode similar to that of the above early works, displayed Ma’s matchless brilliance and distinctive style to the highest degree. The playing was impeccable, the style was gracious, and the audience reaction was ardently enthusiastic. A master of both the long line and virtuoso passagework, one of Ma’s most remarkable traits is his ability to engage, chamber music-like, along with the orchestra players. His joy in performing was so evident, so complete, that he even played in the tutti sections, as if he just could not sit still long enough to await his solo entrances.

In those solo passages, he became in every way the riveting soloist, from the first rolled chord of the Moderato to the glittering fireworks of the final Allegro molto. He then bantered charmingly with the audience, playfully asking their preferences for encores, finally settling on the Prelude to Bach’s unaccompanied Cello Suite no. 1 and a charming folk melody. Both of his chosen pieces demonstrated his keen understanding of multiple simultaneous voicing. 

Seattle Symphony Associate Conductor Pablo Rus Broseta provided tasteful support for Ma’s rendition of the Haydn. The young Spanish-born conductor displayed enormous talent. His baton technique was crisp and clear, and his gestures alternated beautifully between the expressive and the lively. Having professed a deep connection with the music of Haydn and Mozart, he showed an impressive flair for Haydn’s style in the cello concerto, as well as that of Mozart in his renditions of Symphony no. 29 in A major and the less familiar Symphony in D major, K.196/121. The small ensemble of players showed a keen awareness of the chamber music quality of the piece with their sensitive, intimate rendering of the Haydn accompaniment, as well as their playing of the Mozart symphonies, under Rus Broseta’s direction.

The conductor made an immediate impression from the opening piece, Béla Bartók’s Romanian Folk Dances. He showed great versatility in his style, ranging from graceful, sweeping gestures in the first dance to elegant delicacy and lively, spirited movements later in the work, always in command and in control yet sensitive to the subtle balance of these winning, sentimental works.

In an unusual twist, Ma’s performance came last in the program, as opposed to the traditional appearance of the soloist just before the intermission. Judging from the audience’s reception, the reasons for this seem clear: what could possibly come after such a mind-blowing, tour-de-force performance?

Interestingly, Broseta chose to program the evening’s works in reverse chronological order, opening with the Bartók, progressing back through the two Mozart symphonies and ending with the Haydn concerto; thus uniting Mozart with Haydn, another Austrian, who was associated with the famed Hungarian Esterházy family, and also with the wholly Hungarian Bartók, in an entirely satisfying musical event.