Ma, orchestra respond to each other

10.28.09
Yo-Yo Ma
Charlotte Observer

By Steven Brown 

Before he even picked up his cello Tuesday night to play, Yo-Yo Ma produced two small wonders.

First, he sold out his concert with the Charlotte Symphony several weeks ahead of time, recession or no recession. Second: When the night arrived, the prospect of hearing him induced everyone to brave Tuesday's rain and show up – something you never see on ordinary occasions.

Ma's concert turned out to be well worth the risk of getting a little damp. That wasn't only because of the star, either.

Ma must've played Antonin Dvorak's Cello Concerto – the most beloved cello work there is – hundreds if not thousands of times. Yet it was clear Tuesday night that the music's drama and tenderness still grip him.

It wasn't a matter of voluminous tone. Ma's sound was more on the slender side. But its gleam and vibrancy enabled him to cut through the orchestra and project through the hall. What was so compelling Tuesday was the way he poured that sound into Dvorak's concerto.

Time and again, Ma simply dove into the music.

The lyrical spots became as ardent and urgent as the grand gestures. The finale's dancing crackled with energy. Some of Ma's most agile playing, though, came when he stepped to the background to accompany solos from the orchestra. He showed that virtuosity sometimes take the form of allowing someone else to take the spotlight. When he occasionally drew one of his own solos back to a whisper, the sheer contrast was arresting – and his ability to spin out threads of melody even more so.

The orchestra whispered as gently as he did. It was led by guest conductor James Feddeck, the Cleveland Orchestra's assistant conductor, who returned after leading a pair of concerts here last month.

The group may partly have been striving to match Ma, but it was as lively and responsive as it was with Feddeck a month ago. While its sound wasn't voluminous – making it a good partner to Ma, in a way – it nevertheless gave Dvorak tenderness, gusto and impact.

The audience responded with a standing ovation, of course, but this time there was a new twist: It was the debut, at least in Charlotte's classical-music arena, of the Standing Ovation With Cell-Phone Snapshots. This could become the new pinnacle of Charlotte approval.

Maybe Ma was set on the path toward earning it by being well warmed-up before he launched into Dvorak. During the first half of the concert, he slipped onstage and played with the orchestra's cellos in Mozart's Symphony No. 40. As the music unfolded, Ma, tucked between the cellos and violas, was practically on the edge of his seat. He was more physically animated than most anyone else in the orchestra. If he hadn't enjoyed the change of pace, he wouldn't have done it, would he?

Musically, Ma blended right in. Whereas massiveness and seriousness used to be the main qualities that conductors and orchestras brought out in Mozart's Fortieth, Feddeck – as present-day conductors usually do – instead played up its vitality, leanness and lilt. The orchestra played nimbly. Especially in the slow movement, Mozart's lyricism was able to balance his turbulence more poignantly than it could when played the old way.

As a curtain-raiser and muscle-flexer, the orchestra opened the concert with the overture to Rossini's opera “The Thieving Magpie.” The orchestra, prodded by Feddeck, played lustily – even without a helping hand from Ma.