Saturday, January 27, 2007

Yo-Yo I

The biggest weekend this year for the Kansas City Symphony has arrived, 3 concerts with renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Tickets were impossible to get, sold out months ago. Craigs' List had number of ads over the last month seeking tickets, most to no avail. I was lucky to get tickets for both Fri and Sunday; Sunday's performance being a different one from Friday and Saturday.

Ma is obviously a big draw. Even non classical music lovers know him. In 1998, Ma founded the Silk Road Project, an effort to illuminate the music, both old and new, of the cultures along the famous Silk Road that stretched from Rome through Asia to Japan, thus bringing him a whole new audience. The UN has named him as a Messenger of Peace along with Michael Douglas, Mohammed Ali, Jane Goodall, Luciano Pavarotti, Elie Wiesel, and Wynton Marsalis.

I have several favorite cello works, and for some reason Ma does not play a role in any of them. The Elgar Concerto was owned by Jacqueline du Pre, the Bach Cello Suites by Janos Starker, and the Dvorak by Piatigorsky. Thus I was pleased to hear Ma live in concert for the first time.

Ma was featured in the Haydn Cello Concerto in C and Night Music: Voices in the Leaves for Cello, Nine Instruments and Tape by Uzbeki Composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky, a Russian Jewish composer who has chosen to live in Uzbekistan from where he draws his musical inspiration. Thus his works combine music of east and west, Christian and Islam, and his native folk music. The opener was Stravinsky’s gem “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto with the magnificent Shostakovich Symphony # 9 as finale.

The evening’s disappointment was the Dumbarton Oaks so let’s get it out of the way. The first movement was aimless, the intricate counterpoint seemed confused and almost aleatoric at times, despite the agile winds with their perfect, pungent Stravinskian tone. The second movement had similar issues since it is entirely composed of almost Webernian single notes or 3-4 note phrases. Demanding the utmost in control, the performance again went nowhere, despite the well chosen tempo and tonal excellence from the winds. Suddenly, everything jelled and the final "con moto" was excellent, with biting, controlled brass, sharp attacks from the winds and the brittle accented strings. Dumbarton Oaks is a difficult piece to bring off, and with a performance under their belt, I would assume future performances will correct the ensemble issues. The tone and technique are there in spades. (NOTE: I am told the Saturday performance was superb and this by a harsher critic than I)

The Haydn Cello Concerto in C is simply one of the jewels of the cello repertoire. Looking forward from the baroque to the classical period, this charming, always fresh concerto allows ample display for the soloist while mining the opportunities the modern sonata form brings to concerted works.

Ma obviously enjoyed the work, and could glade effortlessly from the gritty double stops of the opening, to the more soaring melodies of the Adagio. The first movement cadenza was well done, suitably flashy but never overdone. Well paced and glowing from start to finish, the Adagio benefited from the lightness of touch from the soloist and the orchestra. The finale was spirited, joyous and again effortlessly communicated the spirit and the freshness of the music. The Orchestra showed that it is well at home in Haydn, always brisk and crisp.

Ma introduced the Yanov-Yanovsky as a piece about memory; small fragments of past events, foggy recollections, incomplete memories, a tune half remembered. Only at the end does everything fit together and the memory take flight. Ma was part of the ensemble of flute, clarinet, percussion, harp, piano, violin, viola, cello and double bass. The cello was part of the ensemble but also had many important solo lines as well, sort of a “more equal than others” role.

The audience was gripped by this quiet, subtle, oriental tinged piece. Although no folk instruments were used, the western instruments were often called upon to mimic native Uzbek instruments. The harp muted and dry, the piano frequently called upon to play the strings inside a la Cowell. The short motives were easy to hear and effectively woven into the texture. It was easy to hear them combine in the climax as the memories of the past became clear. The taped voice singing an Uzbek lullaby joined shimmering strings and the cello’s soaring responses, the dialog between them was atmospheric and breathtaking. A surprisingly satisfying, approachable yet ear challenging work.

And thus to the Shostakovich; simply brilliant. The orchestra ignited and everything was in place. Tempi were spot on, the solo piccolo in the first movement was technically excellent, full of sardonic wit, swagger and bravado. The solo trombone was brilliantly aggressive without sounding merely out of place. The somber second movement waltz was similarly well communicated, never dragging yet contrasted with its faster neighbors. The same applied to the mercurial scherzo. The largo has always been the focal point of this piece (see my entry “The Anti-Ninth” for a background on the work) and in this case the solo bassoon was so effective in evoking the “pause to remember” feeling of the movement. I could literally feel the pain of and see the blank, destroyed faces of the dead, injured, displaced and defeated from the war. Simply brilliant.

The same solo bassoon moved effortlessly into the swirling dance of the short finale. I have always wondered about this movement and how it fits into the scheme of things. Are we to banish all thoughts of the dead and destroyed? Are we to just dance life away, is this Communism and The Motherland rejoicing? Giddy with power and victory? I still do not know, but suffice to say the Orchestra brought all the emotions to the fore. A thought provoking ending to a challenging, fine evening.

Sunday brings a chance to hear Ma again in the Strauss Don Quixote, with the Barber “School for Scandal” and Ravel’s “Ma Mere L’Oye” suite.

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