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Review: Yo-Yo Ma brings his magic to PSO gala

Yo-Yo Ma
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

By Elizabeth Bloom

At the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra's fairy tale-themed "Once Upon a Time" gala Friday night, music director Manfred Honeck spoke about three real-life fables being told in Pittsburgh these days.

First, a giant rubber duck is floating on our rivers. Second, the Pittsburgh Pirates are in the playoffs. Third, cellist Yo-Yo Ma -- classical music's Prince Charming, as Mr. Honeck put it -- arrived in Heinz Hall for Friday night's concert.

I can't speak to the first two, but Mr. Ma's playing was about as magical as any fairy tale, and the orchestra met the festive charge of the evening.

Mr. Ma could have performed last night's pieces -- Tchaikovsky's "Andante Cantabile" and "Variations on a Rococo Theme -- with his eyes closed, and he largely did, allowing the audience to share in his musical trance. In 1992, the famed cellist recorded both of these pieces with the PSO and Lorin Maazel in a Grammy Award-winning album, but it was even better seeing him in the flesh.

Mr. Ma showed off his superlative tone in "Andante Cantabile," while he and the orchestra tried to out-quiet each other. Both teams acquitted themselves well in the competition. Mr. Honeck dropped in a few surprising pauses, creating space in the milky piece.

The heart of the concert was "Rococo," a piece that allowed Mr. Ma the chance to demonstrate the full range of his musical tools. He showed off his honeyed tone in the original statement of the theme, reached jaw-dropping harmonics in the fourth variation and exhibited athletic bowing in the fast finale. In the fifth variation, his fluttering trills would have made a butterfly blush, and he followed up those with a bold cadenza.

The musicians started out Ma-less, and their performance set an appropriately festive foundation for him. They began with a rousing performance of Dvorak's "Carnival Overture," which Mr. Honeck took at a refreshingly fast tempo.

"Dream Pantomime," from Engelbert Humperdinck's opera "Hansel and Gretel," presented a range of textures from floaty to weighty. Strings and clarinet together created an airy sound reminiscent of a lyrical accordion, although some of the orchestra's transitions were insecure.

During three movements from Prokofiev's Suite No. 1 from the ballet "Cinderella," the orchestra cultivated a variegated musical palate. In the "Quarrel" between Cinderella's evil stepsisters, the sections battled in the musical equivalent of a pillow fight. Percussion and harp made for a convincing clock when the clock struck midnight in the last selection.

In two movements from Tchaikovsky's "Sleeping Beauty" suite, the orchestra offered a silky, tender and romantic waltz and an interpretively inventive "Panorama," which included surprising quiet or slow moments.

We already know that music can tell a story. Last night's concert ended happily ever after.