ST. PETERSBURG — From the second Yo-Yo Ma took the stage at the Mahaffey Theater, turned to the crowd and started clapping for them, it was clear:This was going to be a gift for the people in the seats.The world's most in-demand cellist made his debut Saturday with the Florida Orchestra in a gala concert, performing Dvorak's masterful Cello Concerto in a program led by conductor Tito Muñoz.The event to benefit the orchestra's Music for Life fundraising campaign had been sold out for months, and you could sense the thrill from those who had a ticket.The gala reception, concert and dinner offered sponsorship opportunities into the tens of thousands. In the end, it raised more than a half million dollars to support the orchestra, board chairman Thomas Farquhar said. He called the night "momentous.""We are honored to have with us the most celebrated classical musician in the world," Farquhar said, before the musicians launched into Dvorak's Carnival Overture and Rimsky-Korsakov's Capriccio Espagnol. Both performances were excellent by any standards, as the anticipation for Ma roiled to a boil.The last time Ma appeared in Tampa Bay was 2009, when he played at Ruth Eckerd Hall. Florida Orchestra leaders started negotiating this year's performance in 2013 and had Ma booked by January 2014.Some within the organization, including orchestra CEO Michael Pastreich, are friends with Ma. That doesn't make him any easier to hire. He has arm loads of albums and Grammys, and has performed for U.S. presidents including John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama.Ma, 59, is lauded for his humanity, known to stop and talk to strangers, to offer food and jackets when he sees someone in need. Those aren't cliches. They're actual accounts.Saturday, he sat in his chair and looked to his left and right as the orchestra began the concerto's first movement. He gripped the neck of his cello and breathed in time with the music, finding his center before that first heart-stopping draw of the bow across the strings.Ma's soul comes through the cello, through his patience, through the wide berth of his arm, through the fingering both delicate and forceful. You must only reach that height of musical language by opening your life up to others, by having true empathy to understand the work you're playing.Sorrow, passion and spirituality rang through the concerto, which Dvorak wrote in part for his dying and beloved sister-in-law. On Ma's very last note, he exhaled through his whole body and let go.Of course there was a standing ovation, long enough to draw Ma out one more time. He grinned and hammed a pantomime on the instrument as the light dimmed on the rest of the orchestra. Then he gave a little parting gift, a few more minutes of music. Just Ma alone, having a moment with the crowd.Contact Stephanie Hayes at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.