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Boston Symphony: Yo-Yo Ma & David Robertson

David RobertsonFresh from an east coast tour, the Boston Symphony Orchestra roared back into town this weekend with an exciting program made even more intriguing by the circumstances surrounding it. First, which has been well documented, was the absence of music director James Levine, who, after falling on stage during a pre-tour performance, was diagnosed with a rotator cuff injury, and will be out of commission until the summer season. He is not staying quiet, however - he posted this review for the Financial Times.

Filling his absence for a portion of the tour, and for the present performance, was St. Louis Symphony Orchestra director David Robertson. Finally, the featured soloist, Yo-Yo Ma, was originally slated to perform a new commission from Osvaldo Golijov. Apparently due to the constraints of Golijov's schedule, the piece was not completed in time, so the mainstay Schumann Cello concerto was rescheduled (the Golijov premiere for Yo-Yo Ma, with Donald Runnicles conducting, has been rescheduled for this August at Tanglewood).
The performance opened with Ligeti's Romanian Concerto for orchestra. Written in 1951, the young composer was unwillingly writing for Soviet ears, but could not restrain himself completely. The piece begins with an unobtrusive, chant-like unison across the strings, which develops with pastoral grace. The introduction of eastern European folk attributes builds to the final screaming vivace familiar in Ligeti's later works. (and for which the piece didn't make it past the censors, remaining in obscurity for over 15 years).

With this piece, I was introduced to Robinson who, after watching Levine's delightfully minimal conducting all season, comes across as huge and exaggerated. Yet his cues are razor sharp, and say "Play it like this!" as opposed to simply, "Play it right here." Later I would gain real insight into the conductor's gifts. Crispness and clarity were the result of the pared down orchestration. Conversing horns (one on stage, one in the second balcony) added to the pastoral nature of the slow movements, but the on-stage horn suffered bad pitch and chipped entrances. Also exposed was the brilliance of the winds and of concertmaster Malcolm Lowe, all of whom would be featured as the program continued.

The joy of Yo-Yo Ma's presence is infectious. From the moment he walks on stage, you believe that he will personally hug or shake the hand of everyone in the hall, and you are waiting your turn. It only gets better once he begins to play, as he becomes the embodiment of the belief that he is participating in a truly beautiful thing. Such was the case with the Schumann Concerto with its long, singing lines echoing through Ma's Stradivarius. The real joy of being present at his performance, however, is his eagerness to engage the performers around him, as well as the audience. He challenges each section (directly, through eye contact) to live up to their part of the structure of the piece, and behind him the orchestra became less of an accompanying body, but a supporter of his argument. For the audience, he literally tries to give a lesson in how to listen. "See how the strings mimic the solo line in canon. Now listen to the winds and the cello trade off. Isn't it all so beautiful?" Undeniably so. But, for all his passion, watching Yo-Yo Ma play can be very distracting as well. Midway through the piece, one of the myriad of elderly patrons that swamped Symphony Hall this afternoon stumbled loudly through the aisle behind me, the keys on her wristband jangling, exclaiming that she "couldn't see a thing!" I decided to look away from the stage for the remainder of the piece, hearing only Ma's huge voice and the orchestra on his heels. The honesty and zeal was ever present.

The BSO has scheduled quite a few heavy, programmatic tone poems this seasonTillncluding Strauss' Till Euilenspigel and Schoenberg's Pelleas und Melisande. Add to that Strauss' Ein Heldenleben, a lengthy, breathtaking sweep through the travail of a remarkable, battle hardened, peace-seeking hero - possibly (if you believe the program notes) Strauss himself. Early on, concertmaster Lowe leveled the hall with his exquisite sensitivity. Then, in the battle sequence, something remarkable happened. Robertson, who has one huge pattern for anything louder than a mezzo-forte, smashed his baton on his stand and shattered it mid-shaft. Within a bar, he abandoned the remains of the baton, and continued with only his hands. Immediately, the orchestra's sound broadened, the dynamic ranges covered more ground, the lines were drawn out longer, the tension and release inherent in the score were made more obvious as now Robertson had both hands free to mold the texture. The orchestra, and Strauss' thick, heady program, sounded clearer, more focused and deliberate. The huge brass, perfectly in tune, closed the performance in triumphant fashion.

The BSO will repeat this performance on Saturday, March 18.

Postscript: Thanks to the anonymous comment pointing out the innacuracy of the previous incarnation of this post, which stated that Maestro Levine would be conducting the Golijov premiere in August.


Anonymous said...

Golijov cello concerto to be conducted at Tanglewood by Donald Runnicles on August 4 -- this performance (meant to be a reprise, now by default the world premiere) was never scheduled in Levine's weeks there this summer.

jfl said...

Is the FT reviewer really the same Levine as the conductor? That seems a bit hard to believe... although it would be funny - including the self reference as 'vaunted conductor'. Remdinds of Bob Dole using the Pluralis Majestatis.

Anonymous said...

Bob Dole likes a good laugh. Bob Dole prefers swing music. And grammatical English. Bob Dole wonders about the difference between paired down, pared down, and peared down.

Bob Dole