history repeating

Yo-Yo Ma, 30 years after his BSO debut, still makes each performance new, fresh, unique: ‘I never get tired of playing any repertoire.’

Use the scroller on the images above of Yo-Yo Ma to see him at his Boston Symphony Orchestra debut in 1983, left, and in 2013, right.

By David Weininger | Globe Correspondent

One frequent criticism of the classical music world is that it relies on a coterie of elite musicians who stick all too closely to a constricted band of repertoire. Not only do these performers rarely venture out of their comfort zone; they play their favored works the same way, with the same inflections, each time. The critique is not inaccurate, and it can be dispiriting to see a string of top-level artists give beautiful but decidedly comfortable performances of their most popular pieces.

Then there is Yo-Yo Ma. He is one of the few musicians of our time for whom none of this is true. Ma’s excursions outside the standard cello repertoire are well-known — his collaborations with living composers, for example, or his cross-cultural Silk Road Project, or the recent Bach-meets-banjo of the Goat Rodeo Sessions.

But Ma’s way with the familiar catalogue of cello works is even more extraordinary — indeed, it may be the most significant strand in his musical DNA. “I never get tired of playing any repertoire,” he told me in a 2007 interview. “It’s like seeing a great old friend — I can’t wait for the visit.”

That’s an extraordinary statement. Think of Shostakovich’s First Cello Concerto, which Ma is playing Oct. 3, 4, 5, and 8 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Or the Dvorak concerto, which Ma played for his BSO debut 30 years ago and has played countless times since. How could a musician, even the most inspired, not feel a bit weary of their most venerable pieces?

And yet, if you’ve ever seen Ma perform, you know it to be true. he does not. On stage he radiates intensity, so enthralled with the music that he seems to be discovering it afresh each time. The man simply seems incapable of giving a routine performance, even of the most familiar warhorse.

What’s the secret? One answer is Ma’s high level of openness to his collaborators’ insights, his willingness to revisit and revise his approach. That’s one reason two Ma performances of the same piece can differ so much. Take, on the one hand, his 2007 Tanglewood performance of the Dvorak concerto — a muscular, if fairly straightforward, reading that was his first concerto encounter with James Levine. Fast forward to 2011, when he and BSO guest conductor Juanjo Mena delivered a strikingly slow, soft-edged, and micro-detailed performance that came close to making me forget how the piece usually goes.

Lots of performers talk about making each encounter with a piece a rediscovery. Ma is one of the few who not only takes the idea seriously but enacts it every time he takes the stage. That is why he is Boston’s most celebrated musical export, and it’s why a long line of admirers forms by the stage door after every concert. It’s his commitment to pursuing what T. S. Eliot called “the end of all our exploring: to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

David Weininger can be reached at