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Placido Domingo and Yo-Yo Ma together for the first time

08.26.09
Yo-Yo Ma
Los Angeles Times

By Mark Swed

Yo-Yo Ma and Plácido Domingo are irrepressible collaborating animals. A list of artists in many disciplines and from the vast array of cultures with whom they have worked could probably fill a phone book for a mid-size town in Iowa.

There may not be much important repertory for cello and tenor, but Domingo is also a conductor, and sooner or later these two ever-eager superstars simply had to perform together. That finally happened Tuesday night at the Hollywood Bowl. Ma was soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Dvorák’s Cello Concerto, and Domingo stood on the podium.

The place was packed. The concert started 20 minutes late because of Bowl gridlock. Before beginning, Domingo, who has recently shaved his beard, turned to peer at the sell-out crowd, displayed an avuncular smile and happily announced that this was also his first time conducting the L.A. Philharmonic and his first time conducting at the Bowl. Ma beamed as he always does onstage. The huge video screens took it all in.

Such events typically turn into circuses. Incredibly, this one didn’t. Ma’s playing was riveting, and the audience was remarkable. A mass of humanity -- capacity is 17,374 -- listening intently is a rare,
extraordinary occurrence.

Ma, no doubt, has played the Dvorák, the most popular of all cello concertos, several hundred times too many. But the full Bowl was an obvious energizer. And he had what was probably an unusual challenge for a soloist used to playing with the world’s top conductors.

Domingo, who is used to singing with the world’s top conductors, has gained increasing competence in the opera pit. Last month, he conducted “Carmen” at the outdoor Arena di Verona in Italy, and he conducts next season at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Washington National Opera. But he is less experienced leading symphony concerts, and he doesn’t even include orchestral works in the extensive repertory list on his website.

Ma owned the Dvorák on Tuesday, and that was as it should be. He is always a gregarious cellist, making eye contact with other players. This time, he had Domingo mainly in his sights, and he gave lyric melodies in particular a winning singing quality, while his dramatic playing had magnificent operatic urgency.   

Traipsing up and down the musical (and the physical) Silk Road over the last decade has surely helped liberate Ma's playing. The other impression the cellist gave was of making Dvorák up as he went along. I’ve sometimes found Ma growing stale in standard repertory in recent years. Here he was fresh, free and wide awake.

Domingo, though, never really interacted with his soloist. He followed when the cellist played, and that was fine. Otherwise, Domingo enforced a kind of all-purpose fervor that did no harm. The real collaboration came when Ma and concertmaster Martin Chalifour magnificently egged each other on during a violin/cello duo in the Finale.

After intermission, Domingo conducted Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, and he had a unique qualification to do so. If there is another singer who has performed leading roles in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” and “The Queen of Spades” and who has also conducted the composer’s symphonies, I’ve never heard of it.

But Domingo is oddly uncomfortable on the podium in symphonic works, especially for an opera star who can be an effective actor and who appears supremely comfortable in his own skin on the lyric stage. On the podium, Domingo’s body movements are oddly awkward. His beat can’t be easy to follow.

Domingo did get a certain amount of expressive playing in the symphony, and he could be plenty forceful when he needed to be. He was not eccentric; neither was he individual in pacing or phrasing. There were important details in the strings I couldn’t hear, and there were uncertain phrase endings in the Andante.

But mainly what I missed was a Domingo sound. For that, we must turn to the second of the encores after the Dvorák. The first was a traditional Mongolian cello solo played in a state of transfixing rapture by Ma. Then, Domingo sang Massenet’s “Elegy,” with Ma accompanying. Once he found the tenor button in his brain and, after a couple of phrases, turned it on, Domingo was once more Domingo.