If you think that hearing live music again after two years of COVID-19 lockdowns is a wonderful experience, imagine the delight musicians are feeling in returning to the stage.
That delight was evident on both sides of the footlights on Friday evening from the moment world-renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his longtime collaborator, British pianist Kathryn Stott, took the Bradley Symphony Center stage for an artfully programmed recital presented by the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra.
The beautifully played, completely engaging program opened and closed with sets of stand-alone pieces grouped into sets. The pair took barely a breath of time between pieces in the sets, making a fluid, silent bit of ballet out of the simple act of moving music from the previous piece out of the way to read the music for the next.
In effect they held the audience in the palms of their hands whether they were playing or moving between pieces.
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Without pauses for applause, the works of the first set became a single musical statement that tugged at one’s heart, all the more so because it was performed by dear, longtime friends who play together with a comfortable, natural communication.
The set consisted of Felix Mendelssohn’s “Song Without Words,” the Stephen Hough arrangement of “Scarborough Fair,” the Caroline Shaw arrangement of “Shenandoah,” and Jean Sibelius’ “Was it a Dream?”
Ernest Bloch’s poignant, modal “From Jewish Life” followed, played with the solemnity and urgency of a prayer. The program’s first half closed with a deeply expressive performance of Antonin Dvořák’s “4 Romantic Pieces.”
The program’s second half opened with a terrifically evocative performance of Errollyn Wallen’s “Dervish,” in which both players took on the role of percussionists, knocking on their respective instruments to create the sound of drum beats.
The final set was constructed of the percolating rhythms and vivid colors of tangos by Cesar Camargo Mariano, Violeta Parra and Astor Piazzolla. Ma and Stott delivered these delightful pieces with a combination of musical abandon, technical finesse, and palpable joy that elicited foot tapping and head bobbing throughout the hall.
Throughout the program, Ma and Stott played not only with the musical finesse and technical precision one expects from these two artists, but with a single-minded sense of ensemble that goes beyond well-rehearsed and clearly marked musical choices to the respect and affection of good friends who have made music together for nearly four decades — all in all, a grand evening.
Returning to the stage with Ma sporting a blue MSO baseball cap, the pair answered a booming, standing ovation with gently sentimental performance of Jorge Calandrelli’s arrangement of the 1939 song “We’ll Meet Again.” Another standing, cheering ovation followed.