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Music Reviews : Emanuel Ax and Yo-Yo Ma at Royce

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and pianist Emanuel Ax presented a duo-recital to a wildly cheering--in the right places, of course--capacity audience at Royce Hall on Friday.

Perhaps one doesn’t have to say much more, considering the performers’ celebrity and reliability, even predictability.

But predictability loses any pejorative connotation here: What we expect, and get, from this team means being swept away on a tide of passion, if you’ll forgive the purple metaphor.

In their partnership, Ma inspires the sometimes placid (in other circumstances) Ax to flights of intensity equal to his own. Technically, both are masters, and their mastery on Friday extended to a combination of fire and mechanical accuracy that was breathtaking, hair-raising, spine-chilling, mind-boggling, at times nerve-wracking.

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If there was a complaint--and every review, the unwritten code dictates, must have one, to validate the reviewer’s uncannily acute sensibilities--it was that Ma’s sempre appassionato stance and all-purpose, throbbing vibrato may make his playing too much of a piece, too little focused on the specific requirements of a composition. Big deal.

Friday’s program included two repertory staples, Brahms’ E-minor Sonata and the G-minor Sonata of Chopin, and two novelties: Ma’s transcription of Leonard Bernstein’s early, not-yet-jazzy Clarinet Sonata with, to no one’s surprise, Bernstein supplying piano pyrotechnics to match the cello’s, and the new Sonata by William Bolcom, commissioned for the Ma-Ax duo by a consortium including the UCLA Center for the Performing Arts and receiving its local premiere on this occasion.

Bolcom’s piece, with its homages to Brahms’ E-minor, and Schubert’s “Arpeggione,” sonatas, proved viable and ingratiating in a pleasing jumble of Romantic styles couched in a contemporary harmonic idiom. The finale may be little more than galloping busywork, but in the hands of Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax enthralling galloping busywork.


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