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Yo-Yo Ma

A program of music for cello alone, with works very old and very new, suggested an exercise in austerity, yet Yo-Yo Ma's UCLA recital was, as usual, sold out far in advance.

A program of music for cello alone, with works very old and very new, suggested an exercise in austerity, yet Yo-Yo Ma’s UCLA recital was, as usual, sold out far in advance.

Even in an age in which superior cellists seem unusually abundant, something about this immensely charming and intelligent musician, Paris-born in 1955 of Chinese parents, has won him a demonstrative and loyal following, whose expectations were superbly fulfilled in this daunting but stirring concert.

The core of the cello-alone repertory consists of the six suites by Johann Sebastian Bach. Ma played the first and last of these sublime works, with no reluctance to apply “modern” expressive devices, but with splendid respect for the subtle melodic convolutions of, say, the “Allemande” of the Sixth Suite, which seemed to arch toward somewhere just this side of infinity.

George Crumb’s brief Sonata began the program, music from the composer’s 25th year, not yet the innovative spirit he would soon become.

Far more moving was David Wilde’s “The Cellist of Sarajevo,” a tribute-plus-portrait of Bosnian cellist (and recent escapee) Vedran Smailovic, who daily braved grenades and mortar fire to play a lament for his dead countrymen — actually, the so-called “Albinoni Adagio,”– on a Sarajevo street.

Wilde’s piece lasts about 10 minutes, and is also a kind of lament, a haunting, repeated figure that rises in pitch and intensity and then seems to vanish into darkness. As an encore Ma also played the Albinoni, an unauthentic contrivance whose repeated tune is, however, about as melancholy as wordless music can get.

The earthquake damage to UCLA’s Royce Hall, which is now not due to reopen until after the 1995/96 season, has forced the transfer of most concerts to the smaller (by 400 seats) and dowdier Wadsworth.

The hall has its problems (although a spokesperson swears that the missing ceiling tiles predate the quake); there is no backstage space, and the stage won’t accommodate an orchestra. Filled with the plangent throb of Yo-Yo Ma’s cello, however, the hall seemed properly enchanted.

Yo-Yo Ma

(Wadsworth Theater, West L.A.; 1,432 seats; $ 38 top)

Production: UCLA Center for the Performing Arts presents Yo-Yo Ma in a recital of music for unaccompanied cello. Program: works by Bach, Paganini, Crumb and Wilde. Reviewed March 17, 1994.

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