As you walked down Massachusetts Avenue and saw the lines waiting to get into Symphony Hall, you could almost know, without additional evidence, that Yo-Yo Ma was playing. Few other instrumentalists can fill a hall of this size, and almost none can equal Ma’s ability not only to draw a large audience but to draw them, magnetically, into his variegated world.
Friday’s concert — his 18th in the Celebrity Series of Boston but his first since 2010 — was a kind of world tour, for which he was joined by his frequent accompanist Kathryn Stott. It started in Russia, via Italy: Stravinsky’s “Suite Italienne,” based on the composer’s ballet score “Pulcinella” (itself based on music thought to have been written by the 18th-century composer Pergolesi). It was not a promising beginning: Stott played so loudly that Ma, whose sound can easily fill this hall, was at times inaudible. Like a good 18th-century audience, those at Symphony Hall burst into applause after the tarantella, though there was still music to come.
Things improved as the program moved to South America with pieces by Villa-Lobos, Piazzolla, and Camargo Guarnieri. Each was given just the right combination of refinement and smoldering intensity, with Piazzolla’s “Oblivion” making an especially deep impression.
Spain’s entry was Manuel de Falla’s “Seven Popular Spanish Songs.” Here one could admire — indeed, be enthralled by — the variability in Ma’s sound: He seemed to find a different tone color for each of the seven songs, and sometimes you could tell the song’s subject solely by his timbre. Stott, by contrast, sounded somewhat monochromatic.
After intermission came the “Louange à l’Éternité de Jésus” from Messiaen’s “Quatuor pour la fin du temps.” Here the performers were undone by the large crowd, which could not manage to stay silent for any stretch of this spellbinding music. I am all for letting go of stuffy concert norms, but sometimes there is good reason why quiet is so highly valued. The performance was beautiful, but the music’s transportive element was lost.
They saved the German contribution for last: an arrangement of Brahms’s D-minor violin sonata, in a gripping, totally satisfying performance. Stott’s playing was at its best — muscular yet scrupulously balanced, and full of character. Ma made the music sound as lyrical as any violinist can. His virtuosity is undimmed, yet even when he did nothing more than pluck a pizzicato note, it held an entire world of expression. Such small events were acute reminders of why we are so lucky to have him.
The encores began with Elgar’s “Salut d’amour” and Cesar Camargo Mariano’s “Cristal,” which Ma seemed to enjoy reading over Stott’s shoulder. He feigned exhaustion; no one believed him. Finally, after Saint-Saens’ “The Swan,” the pair were finally able to depart for a well-earned rest.