Having established his mastery over the standard classical repertory for his instrument — concertos, sonatas, intricate solo works — 42-year-old cellist Yo Yo Ma has recently been expanding his realm with fascinating forays into the diverse regions of music’s no-man’s-land, the teeming, indefinable mass between the seriously classical and the exuberantly pop. Last season his tour enlisted the services of country style string players; this time Ma’s cello serves as lead vocalist with a small band given to authentic recreation of the Argentinean tango, and especially the music of Astor Piazzolla (1921 1992), the extraordinary musical pioneer who succeeded in raising the insinuating rhythms and harmonies of that dance into high art.
As Beethoven expanded and deepened the content of the classical symphony, Piazzolla summoned the language of tango to create subtle, large scale musical works. Friday’s program at the sold-out Wiltern Theater included the 15 minute “Tango Suite” and the 12 minute “Grand Tango,” both works of considerable complexity that propels them far beyond the boundaries of dancehall. A five piece band, sparked by Nestor Marconi’s insinuating, slithering work on the bandoneon (an accordion’s distant relative but without keys), greatly enhanced both the sense of the music’s primeval force and Piazzolla’s own passion in breaking through stylistic boundaries and weaving his unique, elevating art out of humble threads.
Most of all, it was Ma himself — though Paris born of Chinese parents — whose playing caught the authentic steamy, down and dirty accents that had earmarked the tango since its invention in the seedier bars of turn of the century Buenos Aires. There was an electrifying tension in his playing, different from, but no less overpowering than, the soaring drama he finds in the Bach Suites for Solo Cello — which, incidentally, he will perform under UCLA auspices March 5 and 6. Honoring the spirit of the tango in all but its lyrics, he drew from his classical instrument the heartbreak, the exuberance and the deep, smoky vibrance that make up the language of this music.