Symphony's brilliant Brahms outshines Yo-Yo Ma

09.16.11
Yo-Yo Ma
San Francisco Chronicle

By Joshua Kosman

It's a rare circumstance when an appearance by cellist Yo-Yo Ma doesn't turn out to be the high point of a given musical evening. But that was the improbable fact of Wednesday's concert in Davies Symphony Hall by the San Francisco Symphony.

Do I need to add that this was in no way due to any shortcomings in Ma's performance? Of course not. For technical prowess, expressive eloquence and communicative power, his playing remains the standard against which all other cellists - I sometimes think all other instrumentalists - are judged.

But on Wednesday, Ma was bringing those gifts to bear on Hindemith's 1940 Cello Concerto, a work that like so much of the composer's American output is easier to respect than to love. And then, after intermission, Michael Tilson Thomas led a performance of Brahms' First Symphony so dynamic and so theatrically canny that he simply commandeered the spotlight.

Thomas' growing interest in and command of the late Romantic repertoire - not just Brahms but also Bruckner and others - has been one of the heartening and fascinating local developments of recent years. In a way, Wednesday's rendition of the Brahms First sounded like a retrospectively Mahlerian view of the piece, with the sensibilities of the later composer projected backward in time onto his forebear.

That was evident in the two lusty outer movements that frame the piece, taking their cues in different ways from Beethoven's Ninth. Thomas mined those connections for all they were worth, leading a tempestuous and lean-limbed account of the first movement (timpanist David Herbert led the charge superbly) and bringing tuneful seriousness to the finale, with its rewritten version of Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."

The Mahlerian vein came through in the two graceful middle movements, which - like the corresponding spots in a Mahler symphony - sounded at once sweet-tempered and somewhat tongue-in-cheek. The point of these interludes is to lower the emotional temperature in between the outer movements, but they're not usually done with the ironic edge that Thomas brought to them. Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik and oboist William Bennett made tender, sonorous solo turns.

As for Hindemith's concerto, which has not been heard here since Ma last played it more than 20 years ago, it combines expressive gestures - big, sweeping tunes and vivid rhythms - with a chilly and synthetic harmonic language that many listeners (or at least this one) have a hard time warming up to. Ma's playing was as effusive and brilliant as ever, but the effect was like reading love poetry written in Esperanto.

Beethoven's "Leonore" Overture No. 3 opened the program, in a brisk and impulsive performance marked by splendid contributions from the brass.