Tanglewood, Ravinia, Blossom, Aspen…. Raleigh? An unusually hot spring evening, outdoor tents, and an aura of great anticipation in and around Meymandi Concert Hall lent the evening of May 22 the air of a summer night at one of the great music festivals. This was no ordinary concert. This was not even an ordinary North Carolina Symphony annual gala event.

Many of the biggest names in the classical music world have played with the NCS, but on this night, cellist Yo-Yo Ma was here. There is no bigger name, there is no better cellist, and there is no finer person. Usually, one would preface such a sweeping statement with something like “arguably…” or “one of the..,” but I now unabashedly make these proclamations after this concert and hearing Ma at UNC several years ago.

This was the hottest ticket in town and Meymandi Hall was totally sold out. Unfortunately, it was also the hottest I had ever felt it in that auditorium. The frantic program fanning by many in attendance became the sole distraction for the magical evening. This was indeed a great social event, and many CEOs, local aristocrats, and even the first lady of North Carolina, Mrs. Easley, was present.

The opening work was treated like the poor warm-up act that has to precede the headliner, knowing that everyone is anxious for him (or her, or it) to get off so the “real” reason they came can appear. Guest conductor André Raphel Smith, a Durham native who has directed many great orchestras throughout the United States, led the NCS in Johnannes Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn . The title is now recognized as an incorrect attribution, as the theme that is varied, the “St. Anthony Chorale,” is by an unknown hand (or hands). This is a popular and often-played work but Smith and the NCS made it sound fresh and alive.

Some like to think of themselves as too sophisticated, cynical or “grown up” to be affected by celebrity. That all fell apart when the stage door opened and Ma walked out. Even before a single note was played, there was an immediate rapport with the audience and the orchestra. This is much more than your run-of-the-mill international virtuoso. There was a reduced orchestra for Haydn’s C Major Cello Concerto; as performance practice from the period dictates, Ma played along with the orchestra in the tutti sections as well as essaying the solo part. This gave a “just one of the guys” impression although Ma is anything but that. When you think of the term “Prima Donna” you conjure up images of performers who like to set themselves above everyone else, are hard to get along with, aloof, and unwilling to share the spotlight with others. Turn all of these descriptions around 180 degrees and you have Ma, the man. Everything about his performance exuded inclusiveness, generosity of spirit, and the genuine conveyance that everyone on stage played a part and deserved equal credit. His joy in playing was obvious and infectious despite the fact that he’s played this concerto probably thousands of times. I don’t mean to take anything away from the conductor, but Ma became the person shaping the music, praising sections after a well-played passage, and generally was the heart and soul of the ensemble.

Dvorák’s Cello Concerto is generally recognized as the most musically satisfying of the genre. After looking over the score, Brahms was said to have remarked that if he had known that such a work could be written for cello, he would have done it. It requires tremendous technical and interpretive skills, which Ma has in abundance. There probably are a handful of cellists who match his technique, and beautiful sound and lovely phrasing abound in players at a certain level. Ma has an intangible quality, unique to him, that makes being present at one of his performances something that transcends the purely musical aspects. This is why a recording or even a film of a performance can never substitute for being there. Describing the effect Ma had and the aura he created is something that I am afraid is beyond my literary skills.

As I thought about writing this I was concerned that I might be overly effusive, gushy and extravagant. Was I too easily impressed or not exposed to enough artists of this caliber to temper my enthusiasm? I spoke with two members of the NCS to get their feelings on the weekend with Ma. Both were equally enthralled, and one of them said that the rehearsal for the concert was probably the most profound musical experience of his life. “Magic” was a description used by both.

When the Dvorák was finished, Ma did what his playing and demeanor expressed the whole evening. He hugged all the principals, going up into the woodwind and brass sections to thank everyone personally. He genuinely demonstrated that music is a communal undertaking and everyone who takes part is a valued member. This is something all can learn from, in many aspects of our society.

After playing two of the most difficult concertos he came back for a quiet but equally enchanting encore. The title was not announced but it was an Appalachian-style work by the violinist Mark O’Connor. Despite the relaxed and plaintive quality, this was perhaps the most technically remarkable playing of the evening. Constantly shifting double and triple stops in a very high register filled the hall with what sounded like a heavenly choir, rather than one man with a cello. You could have heard a pin drop – that’s the kind of trance Ma created. This was an event that will linger long in the memory of this writer and, surely, in the minds of all who were present.