The entire music world seems to adore Yo-Yo Ma, his cello playing, his boyishly buoyant presence, and his ability to suggest that a well-integrated personality need not preclude a questing artistic spirit. Always on the lookout to expand his horizons and test new ideas, Ma was in town recently for a three-part celebration at Lincoln Center: as soloist in the local premiere of Tan Dun’s Symphony 1997, composed for last summer’s festivities in Hong Kong; playing all six Bach cello suites at the Church of St. Ignatius Loyola; and as the star of six one-hour films, available on home video, presenting the Bach suites in unusual visual contexts that include dance, Kabuki, architecture, and garden design. The films, just released by Sony Classical, will also be shown on Channel 13 on April 1, 8, and 15.
As he restlessly casts about for new directions to explore – the cello repertory, after all, goes only so far – Ma has strayed into some questionable projects, especially in the area of new music. It’s understandable why Tan Dun would attract him – indeed, this Chinese-born composer’s early years as a cruel victim of his country’s “cultural revolution” has since made him and his music virtually uncriticizable.
I’ll carp anyway, since his 70-minute symphony, grandly subtitled Heaven Earth Mankind, strikes me as a monstrosity. Like his opera Marco Polo, staged last fall by the City Opera, the symphony indiscriminately assembles a variety of musical styles, from atonal noodling, Eastern folk song, and bits of Beethoven’s Ninth to the tackiest apotheoses from the Hollywood cornfields. The whole clumsy apparatus never coalesces or begins to suggest a composer with a voice of his own, and after a while one wonders if even Dun knows who he is cribbing from. During the score’s recent performance in Avery Fisher Hall, Ma sat serenely in the middle of the whole mess, looking positively angelic and playing his heart out, along with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the American Boychoir, the Princeton Girlchoir, and an imposing 2,400-year-old set of imperial Chinese bells.
Ma’s “inspired by Bach” film anthology has been in the works for more than six years. This is an interesting attempt to give music a visual interpretation, but the results are not uniformly convincing. The most successful, I think, involves Mark Morris, who flirts mischievously with Ma as he feverishly devises ingenious choreography for the Third Suite using the startling image of a dancer falling downstairs as his basic inspiration. The film gives a fascinating glimpse of the creative process at work, followed by a performance of the dance itself with Ma providing elegant “accompaniments.” In the Second Suite, the cellist is seen playing within computer-generated, three-dimensional re-creations of the Piranesi prison etchings – a striking blend of spatial and musical architecture from the eighteenth-century, but in between the movements the viewer is apt to be bored by much empty commentary about art history, the mysteries of D minor, and such. In at least one film the music is swallowed up altogether – the Fourth Suite gets totally lost within the disorderly plot of a soap opera directed by Atom Egoyan.
I suspect that in the end, most will be more than content with Ma’s confronting Bach all by himself, in concert or on his new audio-only recordings of the suites (Sony S2K 63203). Needless to say, the daunting technical challenges are easily met by this virtuoso as he takes a far freer approach to the music than when he last recorded the set in 1984. The bowing is more subtly articulate, the dance stylizations more boldly characterized, the dynamic range extended – all communicating an increased sense of fantasy that Ma no doubt picked up while making these thought-provoking films.