Cellist Yo-Yo Ma Tackles Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Latest Concerto

By Miranda Wilson

A cello concerto specifically designed by the composer for a virtuoso operating at the very limits of what is physically (and sometimes mentally) possible requires a performer with a strong head for heights. But in Yo-Yo Ma’s transcendent performance of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s Cello Concerto, no such limits appear to exist. This collaboration between two artists at the pinnacle of their profession has resulted in what must surely go down in history as one of the best cello concertos of the 21st century.


Inspired by the path of a comet across the night sky, Salonen’s Cello Concerto irresistibly evokes a brilliant starry landscape. The kaleidoscopic colors of woodwinds and tubular bells in the opening exposition suggest a kind of celestial chaos, above which the cello enters like a flaming comet, drawing other instruments along in its wake. The second movement features a duo between the solo cellist and the orchestra’s alto flute that is almost comically virtuosic, while the last movement seems wild and dance-like, with an enticing rhythmic backdrop of congas, bongos, and timpani. 

It’s hard to believe that less than 70 years ago, the majority of cellists considered Prokofiev’s Symphony-Concerto unplayable. These days, the Prokofiev is standard competition repertoire, and the acrobatic pyrotechnics of Salonen’s Cello Concerto show how far the technique has come. Ma himself is, of course, responsible for some of these advances. This all-star performance of a star-inspired composition sets a new standard for composers and performers alike. 

yoyoma_salonenEsa-Pekka Salonen: Cello Concerto 
Yo-Yo Ma, cello,
Los Angeles Philharmonic;
Esa-Pekka Salonen, cond.
(Sony Classical)