When Yo-Yo Ma takes the stage with Christoph Eschenbach Friday night for an evening of cello/piano duets, it will mark the first time the two world-class performers have ever publicly played together. But, while not frequent collaborators, the two men are friends. "I really love this guy," Ma says of the soft-spoken musician who checks his ego at the door. "When it was proposed to me, I said, 'I really want to do that,' " Ma laughs. "It could be a disaster."
Don't bet on it. Eschenbach, now in his final season as Houston Symphony music director, has a reputation as a distinguished concert pianist. And the affable and self-effacing Ma is one the most in-demand soloists on the classical circuit -- a passionate interpreter with fantastic technical command who's racked up a dozen Grammys and a couple of Emmys.
World-class performers tend to have great taste. Ma and Eschenbach's all-Beethoven program contains some of the composer's most majestic works. "What's interesting is we're playing two of the early sonatas and one from the middle period," Ma explains. "Beethoven really did have his periods; early on, he kind of experiments with his forms.
"The third one has that golden glow that Beethoven gets in his middle period. It's noble in character. It's joyous."
Ma says they plan to experiment with Beethoven's arrangements of the Magic Flute arias. Considering the classical cellist has done crossover recordings with the likes of Bobby McFerrin, Mark O'Connor and Edgar Meyer, that's not too surprising. While many neoclassicists are stuck in a time warp, Ma expands his boundaries, something he feels is actually quite traditional. "I think the classical realm has always tried to go ... wildly experimental. So I'm just doing what I think is neat. I just like to work with really interesting people."