World-class cellist Yo-Yo Ma has been a frequent guest of UCSB Arts & Lectures in recent years, and with every occasion he’s revealed a different side: master of Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites; director of that caravan of international virtuosi, The Silk Road Ensemble; last year the self-described “citizen musician” gave a biographical-philosophical lecture titled A Life in Music. This appearance of Ma with English pianist Kathryn Stott was, again, something new. Formally, this was a traditional chamber concert; in content, it was as tradition-stretching as anything that Ma undertakes. Ma and Stott have played together for nearly 30 years and spurred each other to explore Latin American sounds — not through sanitized European interpreters but by meeting and playing with indigenous musicians in Brazil and Argentina. The results were the Grammy-winning Obrigado Brazil CDs (one studio, one live), which featured the likes of Paquito D’Rivera, the Assad brothers, and Rosa Passos playing works by composers like Heitor Villa-Lobos and Antônio Carlos Jobim.
Latin music composed the heart of Thursday’s program, which included a suite of three works: Alma brasileira by Villa-Lobos, the heart-stopping Oblivion by Astor Piazzolla, and Dansa negra by Camargo Guarnieri. This was followed by Manuel de Falla’s 7 canciones populares españolas. Stott is a wonderful pianist with a contagious feeling for dance-based rhythms, and Ma knows how to dig an earthy voice from his cello.
Other delights included Igor Stravinsky’s Suite italienne and Olivier Messiaen’s Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus. The Messiaen is a mesmerizing study in color transformation, a slow pleading cello melody built on a clock-like striking of piano chords. This minimalism was a perfect contrast to the involved finale that followed: Sonata No. 3 in D minor, Op. 108 by Johannes Brahms.