- The Washington Times - Friday, September 26, 2003

Crossover recordings frequently get sour reviews from classical music writers, and for good reason. Some of these discs are blatantly commercial and kitschy, while others highlight idiotic pairings of classical musicians with pop nonentities in the hopes of cashing in on the latest youth fads.

Still others, like renowned classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s recently released “Obrigado Brazil,” are inviting revelations, carefully constructed, well-balanced concert programs. “Obrigado” is Brazilian/Portuguese for “thank you,” and according to Mr. Ma this recording is his thanks to an eclectic crew of Brazilian musicians for helping him launch this enjoyable mix of tunes that will beckon fans of one musical genre to sample another.

“Brazil is a country that constantly re-energizes its music, deriving it from its own roots, Europe, West African, and other musicians,” says Mr. Ma, noting that some of that country’s most popular performers and composers have roots in other lands.

“I’ve found many kinds of music interesting to me and interesting to my audiences,” he says. “Knowing the music that is precious in each country is to know each other better.”

Of great interest to Mr. Ma is “choros” (pronounced CHORE-ose), a song style that is peculiar to Brazil. “‘Choros’ means ‘to cry,’” he says. “And that is a mood that underlies many Brazilian songs. It actually reminds me of the songs of Mozart and Schubert. They are sweet and happy, but there is, paradoxically, a sense of melancholy underneath.”

Imbued with overtones of this style and immediately familiar to many listeners of the “Obrigado” collection are adaptations of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s songs, “Chega de Saudade,” a lovely duet for cello and voice, and “O Amor Em Paz.” Credited with initiating the bossa nova craze, Mr. Jobim won fame in this country with “The Girl From Ipanema.” The arrangements on this CD, sung by noted bossa nova vocalist Rosa Passos, bring back those slightly more innocent times when the sinuous Latin rhythms of this sexy song style were viewed by parental units with more alarm than even the swiveling hips of Elvis.

No less intriguing are arrangements of two songs by Pixinguinha , the legendary black composer who is largely credited with creating the Brazilian choros style. His “I X O” is a rapidly clattering tune that not occasionally comes across like an absurd Brazilian polka. “Carinhoso” slows down the pace with its uncanny resemblance to one of Scott Joplin’s delicious slow drags.

Mr. Ma deftly blends in more serious stuff without breaking the mood, adding energetic interpretations of two compositions by Heitor Villa-Lobos. Arguably Brazil’s most serious composer to date, Villa-Lobos put a uniquely Latino spin on Euroclassical tradition. In the second of these tracks, “Alma Brasileira,” a brooding piece that morphs dramatically into one of the composer’s signature locomotive-like motifs, the cellist is deftly assisted by his longtime accompanist, Kathryn Stott.

Perhaps the loveliest piece in this collection is a quiet, gentle trio featuring Mr. Ma and duo guitarists Sergio and Odair Assad in Sergio’s composition “Menino.” Done up in a Latin ballad style, the guitar work is notable in this track, sounding for all the world like a pair of shimmering small harps at work. Exquisite.

The disc concludes, almost, with “Brasileirinho,” a frenetic, noisy, percussive piece that pays homage to the Brazilian nightclub scene, highlighted by a whirling, right-on duet between Mr. Ma’s cello and the virtuoso clarinet of Paquito D’Rivera.

“Salvador,” the “bonus” cut that concludes this disc, is a curiosity. It’s an oddly jarring composition by Egberto Gismonti, who whacks and slithers across his acoustic guitar like the ghost of John Cage. It’s a weird, enigmatic statement with which to end a generally user-friendly CD.

Nonetheless, this production earns high marks. The musicianship is first rate, the material is authentic. And Mr. Ma, for all the star power he brings, is generously self-effacing, dropping back into the musical ensemble like a traditional jazz musician, allowing his collaborators to shine.

As for Mr. Ma? In town recently under the auspices of the Washington Performing Arts Society, he will next perform in the nation’s capital on Dec. 3, when he joins the National Symphony Or]chestra and Leonard Slatkin in Tchaikovsky’s brilliant “Concerto for Cello.”

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