Oh, shut up- you already know what he looks like. Besides, doesn't the background in this photo of Kathryn Stott by Lorenzo Cicconi look like a Gerhard Richter painting? 

A couple of weeks ago I saw Yo-Yo Ma and Kathryn Stott perform together in UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall. I can't decide if being Yo-Yo Ma would be a wonderful or terrible thing. I do know it sort of sucks to write about one of his performances. What can one say that hasn't been said already? Is possible to separate the man's abilities on a given night from his aura and reasonably critique his performance at this point in his career? To say something negative, anything at all, would make one appear petty, spiteful and small, because not only is Ma such an extraordinarily gifted performer, but his spirit and sense of generosity toward the audience, and his fellow artists, pervades every moment he's onstage.

Even if it were true there would be very few people who would even believe you if you ever said, "Yo-Yo Ma? He was just okay." I wonder when the last time was when that was actually true. He's gotta have an off night too, right?

Maybe. Maybe not. Because Yo-Yo Ma is just a little bit different that you, I or your everyday classical musician. I suspect he knows this to some extent, and it's how he wears this knowledge like a loose garment that is so incredibly damn flattering. What I find complelling about the world's most famous and recognizable classical musician is he is always willing to share the spotlight. He knows he can't avoid it, he can't escape it, so he might as well share it. And that's the mark of a uniquely confident and generous soul. And a class act.

Because Stott and Ma have a long history together, she seemed as comfortable as one could be for being in the decidedly unenvious role of the musician no one is paying to hear. However once the music started none of that really mattered and if one couldn't quite view them as equals on the stage, they were certainly peers and partners, which yielded a number of rewards since it never felt like "The Yo-Yo Ma show, accompanied by Kathryin Stott." Credit the canny selections performed by the duo, beginning with Stravinsky's Suite Italienne, which allowed Stott ample time to ingratiate herself with the audience before Ma tore into the Tarantella and reminded everyone who they came to see.

Of the three pieces which followed, all from the Latin world, only Piazolla's Oblivion stood out to me as particularly noteworthy, perhaps because none were originally scored for the cello, though the mournful craving of Piazolla's tango-infected music is perfectly suited for the instrument's voice.

That same lack of conviction was felt in Manuel de Falla's "Siete Canciones Populares Espanolas," but only when it came to the cello. Stott was fantastic with these songs, especially in Seguidilla Murciana and the Albeniz-flavored Asturiana. Ma appeared to become almost giddy as he watched her dominate the songs- not ceding the stage to her, but happy to let her take the wheel and drive the performance.

After the intermission came what was for me the highlight of the scheduled programming, Louange al'Eternite de Jesus from Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time (Quatuor pour la fin du Temps), which was followed by the evening's most traditional selection, a Brahms sonata (No. 3 in D Minor for those of you keeping score). There's not much to say about either except they were exceptionally played. If you thought my earlier comments were some sort of intimation on my part that Ma was "just okay," well, no- he was as wonderful as we all expect him to be.

Yet for all that, the best part of the concert was still to come during three generous encores. The first was "The Last Song" by Clarice Assad, whose father was in the audience and graciously introduced by the star. Next came Ma's own Cristal, which felt like straight-up Brubeck and found him fiendishly following Stott's own alternating lead hands on the piano's keys like a leopard chasing down a gazelle.

The final piece of the evening was Saint Saen's The Swan, and even this familiar, gorgeously decadent piece, which the pair have performed numerous times together, had an air of freshness and possibility. The sold-out house departed happy, dazzled and delighted once again by the classiest man in the business. The concert was presented by Cal Performances, who have a number of noteworthy concerts coming up, including a recital by the magnificent bass Eric Owens this coming Sunday, and especially the upcoming solo recital next Tuesday by the white-hot violinist Christian Tetzlaff, which promises to be a highlight of the year.