I am always surprised, after all these many decades, by how deeply moved I am by Yo-Yo Ma’s playing, which combines irresistible charisma and generosity of spirit.
By Susan Miron
Earlier this week the BSO concerts were all about fortuitous connections. The esteemed conductor Charles Dutoit was celebrating his 80th birthday and his longstanding association with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The beloved cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who shares Dutoit’s birthday, performed Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto, the piece long associated with cellist Jacqueline du Pré, whose cello he owns. Elgar was one of three well-known twentieth century composers featured on the all-British program, which included music of William Walton and Gustav Holst. Two of these composers stopped, or nearly stopped, writing music midway into their successful careers. Tuesday night’s concert felt very much like a family affair of benevolent kindred spirits.
Of the three pieces performed, William Walton’s (1902-1983) overture “Portsmouth Point” (1925) was most likely the only one of which most of the audience had no acquaintance. The last BSO performances were helmed by Serge Koussevitzky in 1930 and by Richard Burgin in 1933 and 1941. Described aptly in the program notes (by Hugh McDonald) as “a riotous overture” whose “dynamic energy released in the first bar is sustained to the end in an unstoppable rhythmic feast,” the piece is full of brilliant writing for brass and percussion, a fervor that would “be brought to perfection” in later Walton works, such as “Belshazzar’s Feast” and the First Symphony.
Inspired by a print entitled “Portsmouth Point” by English caricaturist Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827), this exuberant short piece was played splendidly, especially by the brass and winds (who performed admirably all evening). Another major English composer, Benjamin Britten, admitted to Walton in a 1964 letter: “I don’t know if I ever told you, but hearing your Viola Concerto and ‘Portsmouth Point’ … was a great turning point in my musical life. I’d got in a muddle and you showed me the way of being relaxed and fresh, and intensely personal.” Elgar, on the other hand, heard a recording of the composition in 1932 and didn’t like it at all. I enjoyed it immensely, and wondered why it hadn’t been programmed in seventy-seven years. Thank you, Maestro Dutoit.
Elgar’s Cello Concerto was, for decades, thought of as “owned” by the late, great Jacqueline du Pré (she made a legendary 1965 recording), yet judging by the frequency with which Yo-Yo Ma has played the piece with the BSO alone — six times between August 1989 and August 2012 — it has become his property as well. (He made a recording of the work with André Previn in 1985). Ma’s 1983 concert with the BSO was the beginning of dozens of appearances with his hometown orchestra at Symphony Hall, Tanglewood, and on tour. He is obviously a cherished member of the BSO family and he returns the affection — his delight upon seeing and performing with old friends in the orchestra was palpable.
I have been listening — first as a serious fan, then as a reviewer — since Ma appeared on the scene, and am still awed by the energy, concentration, and devotion he pours into whatever he is playing or doing. And I am always surprised, after of these many decades, by how deeply moved I am by his playing, which combines irresistible charisma and generosity of spirit. He played magnificently, throwing himself into the Elgar score from the first notes. Dutoit deftly negotiated the balance between the solo cello and the orchestra strings. Ma nimbly embraced the composition’s opening episode of anguished sadness, throwing himself into each lamenting note. It was spellbinding. The third (of four) movement was exquisite and, although the piece’s fourth movement is its weakest, even that sounded very good indeed. Dutoit and Ma show a tremendous rapport on and off stage. The two were visually in constant contact during the music, embracing after the performance was over. They walked off stage together, their arms around each other — you can’t fake real friendship — after kissing (on both cheeks) the five women sitting at the front of the orchestra.
The audience was treated to extraterrestrial music next, with Holst’s famous Op. 32 suite, “The Planets.” Dutoit has a knack of making less than first-class music sound terrific, and he worked his customary magic on this popular piece. Full of memorable, catchy tunes, it’s a perfect showpiece for an orchestra of BSO’s hefty caliber. Several orchestra members — and sections — were standouts. Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe paid poetic justice to his many solos. Acting Principal Cello Martha Babcock contributed moments of sheer beauty during “Venus” (all the strings sounded gorgeous), and timpanist Timothy Genis was his usual lively self, especially in “Uranus, the Magician,” whose threatening soundscape would work well as a soundtrack for a sci-fi film.
Organist James David Christie and horn player James Somerville also made memorable contributions. The two harpists, including Principal Harp Jessica Zhou, contributed ethereal harmonics and high trills almost non-stop; they, along with the celeste, gong, bells, and xylophone generated sounds of unearthly beauty. The brass were spectacular in “Jupiter,” popping off explosions full of color and energy. Dutoit is celebrated as a brilliant colorist and this intoxicating piece is a perfect match for his distinctive gifts. The final (and memorable) movement, “Neptune, the Mystic,” had the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (under guest conductor Lisa Graham) placed offstage, their voices spookily fading into nothingness, the ‘no one can hear you scream’ vacuum of outer space. An electrifying performance of a really fun piece. Bravi to all, especially Ma and Dutoit, who celebrated their birthdays in intergalactic style.
Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. She is part of the Celtic harp and storytelling duo A Bard’s Feast with renowned storyteller Norah Dooley and, until recently, played the Celtic harp at the Cancer Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital.