Yo-Yo Ma and TSO play beautifully together

Yo-Yo Ma
The Globe and Mail

By Colin Eatock

How long should a piece of string be? Ideally, it should be the right length for the purpose at hand.

And so it is with orchestras. There’s no standard size – but there must be as many musicians as each musical work demands.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra underscored this point on Wednesday night, with configurations ranging from a mere 10 players to a stage filled with about 90 musicians. It was probably one of the most “elastic” TSO concerts to ever grace the stage of Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall.

And for this unusual program, the capacity audience could thank a visiting cellist named Yo-Yo Ma.

It was no doubt at Ma’s urging that Night Music: Voice in the Leaves for 10 players, by Uzbek composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky, opened the concert. The superstar cellist has a strong interest in the music of central Asia: He often performs it with his Silk Road Ensemble. Night Music: Voice in the Leaves was originally written for Ma and his band, 12 years ago.

The small ensemble required – flute, clarinet, harp, piano, violin, viola, cello, bass and two percussionists, plus pre-recorded tape – was conducted by TSO music director Peter Oundjian.

It’s a sparse, subtle and delicately coloured piece, neither tonal nor atonal. As well, it features a prominent solo part for the cello – artfully written to allow the glorious tone of Ma’s Stradivarius instrument to shine. It was a refreshing way to begin the evening.

What followed was a dramatic leap from a chamber group to a big orchestra. The TSO needed every musician on its roster on stage to take Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances Op. 45 by the horns.

This three-movement work, dating from 1940, places heavy demands on the conductor: Highly episodic, it’s full of shifts in tempo and character. Oundjian’s solution to the challenge of achieving coherence was to favour taut tempos. And while this had the effect of holding things together, it was a solution that came at a price. The approach worked best in the waltz-like middle movement – but the emphasis on forward momentum short-changed some of the expressive passages in the outer movements.

Still, the TSO played admirably for their maestro – especially the brass section, which distinguished itself in several glorious outbursts.

Finally came the big attraction of the evening: Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor Op. 85. Composed in 1919, it was the English composer’s swan song – although it failed to achieve widespread appeal until the cellist Jacqueline du Pré recorded it in 1965. Since then it’s held a prominent place in the cello’s inexplicably slender concerto repertoire.

It was Elgar’s concerto that Ma brought to Toronto when he debuted with the TSO back in 1979. Since then he’s surely played it more times than he can count.

As a result, it was immediately evident that he knew the piece like the back of his hand. Phrasing was fluid, organic and always convincing. As for the score’s technical challenges, for Ma they’ve long ceased to be challenges at all.

Yet this is not to say that he made it all look or sound easy – because he didn’t. Ma gave a fully engaged performance, with no hint of superficiality or overripeness. He earnestly meant every note he played, and the result was thoroughly satisfying.

Wisely, Oundjian gave Ma plenty of interpretive space. And under his guidance the TSO musicians refrained from swamping the soloist. (This is a common problem in cello concertos.)

Tumultuous applause brought Ma back to the stage for a short encore: a charming rendition of the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1.

Yo-Yo Ma and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra

Peter Oundjian, conductor