ROCKPORT — Venue isn’t everything, but as summer festivals go, it counts for a lot. Five years ago, almost to the day, the Rockport Chamber Music Festival walked across the street and into its future.
Concerts used to be held on a makeshift stage in the cramped galleries of the Rockport Art Association; they now take place in the gleaming purpose-built Shalin Liu Performance Center, with its warm tones and its striking views of the sea. As he took the stage for a season-opening solo recital on Friday night, Yo-Yo Ma drew a guffaw from the crowd by spinning around his chair to face the venue’s wall of glass. The joke required no words — who wouldn’t want to share this view?
Ma’s first-ever visit to the festival this weekend was timed to help celebrate not one but two anniversaries: five years for the festival in its new home and two decades under the artistic direction of pianist David Deveau.
As a performer, Deveau appears on a fraction of the Rockport programs, but his thoughtful curatorial sensibility has long defined the festival as a whole. Under his watchful eye, there are recurring through-lines, but the summers are never interchangeable with each other. Deveau knows the comfort zones of his core audience, but he also knows how to stretch them. Exploration is valued. Safety, refreshingly, is not the main artistic priority.
Ma’s recital program on Friday, whether by design or by happy coincidence, seemed to channel a bit of this Rockport spirit. Bach Cello Suites (Nos. 1 and 3) anchored the program, but rather than offering an all-Bach evening, which he so easily could have, Ma offset these works with two rarely heard pieces from the 1950s: a movement from a Partita by the Turkish composer Ahmed Adnan Saygun and George Crumb’s Cello Sonata.
In Friday’s account, the Saygun came across as a contemplative curtain-raiser, full of a folk-inflected lyricism delivered here with a poetic touch. Ma often plays a Montagnana cello with the power to cut through a full orchestra, but for this occasion he chose his softer-voiced 1712 Stradivarius. With seeming effortlessness, the instrument filled this intimate hall with earthy, ambrosial tone. In the moment, instrument and venue seemed made for each other.
Without pausing for applause, Ma segued directly from the quiet close of the Saygun into the First Bach Suite, arriving at the timeless arpeggiated chords of its opening bars as if stepping across the threshold to his own home. Collectively, the two major-key Bach Suites heard here had a charm, buoyancy, and gentle radiance that was no less rewarding for being exactly what you would expect from Ma.
Between them came Crumb’s Sonata, an early and impassioned work that shows a gifted young avant-garde composer drinking deeply from the wells of Bartok and Kodaly. It’s hardly your typical lightweight gala fare, but Ma carried the audience with him through the vividness and narrative thrust of his performance. Before sending the audience off to its dinner, he offered one encore: the Catalan folk melody known as “Song of the Birds,” closely associated with the cellist Pablo Casals.