Yo-Yo Ma draws a vast crowd to Ravinia

Sat Aug 15, 2009 at 11:17 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Yo-Yo Ma performed Dvořák’s Cello Concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Friday night at Ravinia.

As sure as night follows day, one can always be assured of a fail-safe combination for drawing audiences to the Ravinia Festival: book Yo-Yo Ma playing Dvořák with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, add a beautiful summer evening, and watch the customers stream through the gate.

A teeming throng of humanity packed Ravinia’s lawn Friday night with barely a blade of unoccupied grass visible. More strikingly, in a summer in which nearly every classical event has had scores of empty rows in the pavilion, every available seat appeared to be filled Friday to the very back row.

The celebrated cellist’s performance of Dvořák’s masterwork reflected his approach to music he has recorded twice and performed countless times.  Ma does not seduce with a voluptuous febrile sound in the Rostropovich mode, but his intimate, conversational style is so intensely communicative it has listeners consistently on the edge of their seats.

That expressive concentration was apparent in the first movement where the soloist’s rapt rendering of the second theme was floated with a hushed delicacy that hovered on the edge of audibility.

There was no lack of vigor or dramatic point in Dvořák’s stormy moments, to be sure, but, time and again, it was Ma’s interior playing that proved most impressive. Rarely will one hear the closing section of the songful Adagio so gloriously played, Ma’s cello perfectly matching the phrasing and dynamics of clarinetist John Bruce Yeh and guest principal flutist Thomas Robertello.

The requisite edge was there in the finale but again it was the nostalgic tenderness of the soloist’s lyrical rumination in the final pages that stayed in the memory, with Ma’s final note magically emerging out of the darkness at the coda. An excellent effort by all concerned, with James Conlon and the Chicago Symphony players performing at their considerable peak for their starry guest soloist.

The first half was by no means an also ran, with Conlon leading the CSO in a magnificent performance of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony (No. 3).

James Conlon

Marking the bicentennial year of Mendelssohn’s birth, Conlon and the Chicago Symphony have presented three of the composer’s symphonies this summer, and, compared to the garrulous account of the First Symphony on opening night, this Scottish Symphony was on another level entirely.

Many conductors are content to whip up this music for superficial thrills, turning up the speed and volume, but this was not Conlon’s way.  The festival’s music director kept the music within early 19th-century parameters with an uncommonly refined and elegant performance that yet lacked nothing in spirit and exuberance.

All the movements (played without pause) sounded with a natural flow and unforced expression that felt just right, from the atmospheric introduction, to the bagpipe-like piquancy of the scherzo, which had an elfin lightness Friday like the fairy music from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Adagio’s lyricism unfolded with Classical elegance from the CSO strings, with the expression never soupy or over the top. Even in the finale, Conlon kept the reins firm with the climactic horn theme robust and exhilarating yet within scale. An inspired performance, with terrific playing by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on their closing Ravinia weekend and one of the highlights of the summer.

Posted in Performances

One Response to “Yo-Yo Ma draws a vast crowd to Ravinia”

  1. Posted Aug 15, 2009 at 4:58 pm by Maczulski Margaret

    Please offer more programs like last night. The crowd was overwhelming, indicating a demand for more performance of this classical bend.

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