Yo-Yo Ma delights again with depth of musicality

Yo-Yo Ma
Toronto Star

By John Terauds

The world’s favourite cello player, Yo-Yo Ma, made a fine show of his prodigious talents with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall on Thursday night.

The showcase piece on the program was Edward Elgar’s 1918 Cello Concerto, the same piece he played at his first concert with the orchestra in 1979.

Despite hundreds of performances of this much-loved concerto over the intervening years, and the passage of more than six dozen albums filled with a wide range of classical and crossover music, Ma made the Edgar sound fresh and spontaneous.

The TSO, led by music director Peter Oundjian, made a fine accompanist, with Ma clearly in full engagement.

The capacity crowd lapped it up, pretty much guaranteeing the cellist who inspired the Music Garden on Queens Quay yet another return visit to Toronto.

The concert opened with Ma in Night Music: Voice in the Leaves, a work he commissioned 12 years ago for his Silk Road Ensemble from Uzbek composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky.

The atmospheric piece, redolent with exotic sounds inspired by the folk music of Uzbekistan, was a brave bit of programming.

Where usually the Toronto Symphony fills the stage, here were only nine members of the orchestra — all but one a principal — along with the cellist and conductor. But the nuanced intensity of the performance put a lie to the small forces.

Ma, playing as one of many, not as a star soloist, again revealed the depth of his technique and the breadth of his musicality.

The central piece of the evening was Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, born in 1940, during the second big European war. Its three dance-based movements showcase every section of the orchestra.

Where the Elgar is laced with shades of melancholy, Rachmaninov’s final big composition is tinged with menace. Oundjian shaped the music elegantly, giving it soft contours and teasing out gorgeous, burnished sounds from the orchestra. But the menace was notably absent.

This was a kinder, gentler Rachmaninov, in line with the overall theme of a golden musical evening.