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On Saturday night the Toronto Symphony Orchestra presented an all-Russian program, in honour of a Russian who was not there.
Mstislav Rostropovich, the greatest cellist of the post-Second World War era, and also a distinguished conductor, was originally scheduled to lead the TSO.
But his death, just over a year ago, put an end to that plan. The TSO turned the event into a tribute, programming Shostakovich's Cello Concerto No. 1 (originally written for Rostropovich), and also Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4. And a fitting tribute it was, thanks to guest soloist Yo-Yo Ma - who, it's fair to say, has now inherited the crown of World's Foremost Cellist.
The Shostakovich was a tour de force. Technically, Ma took everything the gruelling score threw at him in his stride: flying bravura figures, huge leaps and dense chords. Not even the eerily stratospheric harmonics of the second movement seemed to cause any problems.
Even more astonishing was his rich and surefooted interpretation. Some musicians think Shostakovich should be relentlessly bleak - but in Ma's hands the concerto was also tender, noble, ironic, angry and more. As well, it was apparent that there was a grand architectural scheme at work: Even in passages when the notes seemed to be furiously going nowhere (a Shostakovich trademark), his carefully constructed phrasing gave the piece a forward momentum and rhetorical grandiloquence.
Throughout, Ma's Stradivarius cello projected clearly above the orchestra, to the credit of both soloist and conductor. From the podium, conductor Peter Oundjian masterfully controlled the tricky balances inherent in this piece, limiting his fortes to bright interjections and controlling his orchestra at other times to give Ma the foreground. Also praiseworthy were the solos played with conviction by the TSO's principal (and, in this piece, only) hornist, Neil Deland.
Following the concerto, Ma spoke from the stage: He said a few words about Rostropovich, and also mentioned Toronto's Music Garden (on Queens Quay, between Bathurst Street and Spadina Avenue), which Ma helped to design. As an encore, he played the Prelude from Bach's Suite for Cello No. 1 - all sweetness and light after the dark, complex sound-world of Shostakovich.