March 14, 2019
Wu Man & Yo-Yo Ma at NY Phil

By Joshua Barone, The New York Times, March 7, 2019

Yo-Yo Ma and Wu Man Play With Cinematic Sweep

Try not to smile when you watch Yo-Yo Ma and Wu Man onstage together. I dare you.

The two musicians — he’s a superstar cellist, she’s our leading pipa player — seem at first like an odd couple. Mr. Ma plays with brazen emotionality; you get the impression he couldn’t pull off a poker face if he tried. Ms. Wu, calm and unshowy, casts a quiet spell as she gracefully plucks the strings of her lutelike instrument.

But they exude amiability, with jolly glances frequently thrown back and forth, and unexpected compatibility. The cello and pipa have vastly different sounds and histories. Yet together, in the hands of Mr. Ma and Ms. Wu, they are as intimately harmonious as a cafe singer and guitarist.

At David Geffen Hall through Saturday, they’re playing Zhao Lin’s double concerto “A Happy Excursion,” which had its American premiere on Wednesday with the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Long Yu. (And how refreshing to hear a work by a Chinese composer outside the Philharmonic’s annual Lunar New Year concert.)


Mr. Lin’s crowd-pleasing concerto begins with a blossoming soundscape that gives way to increasing bustle and, eventually, a lushly cinematic swell that reaches its climax with brass fanfare and crashing cymbals. The soloists evoke characters: Ms. Wu’s pipa on a merry walk, matched by Mr. Ma’s bouncing, buoyant down-bow strokes.


The second movement retreats from the excitement with a misty opening, like quiet daybreak. Over spare orchestration, the pipa plays a slow and simple melody inspired by a 1,200-year-old Chinese tune.

But in the finale, we return to the commotion of the first movement, now less stable and more unpredictable, the way a busy city’s streets can change suddenly from block to block. All too predicable, however, is the majestic ending — but it’s easy to forgive Mr. Lin’s heavy hand while swept up in the filmic grandeur and sparkling cheer of Mr. Ma and Ms. Wu.



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