Yo-Yo Ma delivers fresh and eloquent Dvořák with CSO

Sun May 06, 2012 at 12:26 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

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

Back home for their first program after what by all accounts proved to be a highly successful tour of Russia and Italy, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra got a little help from their friend Yo-Yo Ma Saturday night.

The orchestra’s creative consultant opened his two-week CSO stand with Antonin Dvořák’s not unfamiliar Cello Concerto in B minor. One would expect that having the world’s most popular cellist in the most beloved cello concerto in the repertory would be a big draw—especially with an abbreviated run of just two weekend performances—and such was the case Saturday with a notably well-filled house.

With two recordings and umpteen performances of Dvořák’s concerto to his credit, Ma still delivered a notably fresh and eloquent performance with the orchestra led by Carlos Miguel Prieto.

Perennially youthful at 55, Ma can sometimes be in danger of loving the music too much, both in fitfully indulgent playing and his ecstatic facial expressions and beneficent nodding smiles. Saturday night the musical mannerisms and exaggerated pianissimos were minimal, and this spirited performance was one of his most successful concerto appearances in recent seasons.

After a somewhat slack entrance, Ma’s silvery timbre proved a compelling solo protagonist through the Czech composer’s drama and rustic lyricism. Ma’s sound has never been ample in the Russian or German tradition, yet his lithe, springy style, flexibility and elegant tone–some surprisingly choppy bravura passages apart—provided just the right grace and dramatic cut.

Ma was at his finest in the Adagio, playing with tender intimacy in the ruminative reverie. The soloist also fluently encompassed both the fiery and introspective elements of the finale, investing the inward-looking passage near the coda—a late addition to the concerto when Dvorak’s sister-in-law passed away—with just the right aching nostalgia minus any extraneous lily-gilding.

Prieto—a frequent Ma collaborator—was a largely simpatico if not very subtle partner, drawing full-blooded accompaniment that would have benefited from more finely balanced textures, woodwinds in particular. Assistant concertmaster Stephanie Jeong, clarinetist John Bruce Yeh and oboist Michael Henoch contributed atmospheric solos.

The concert led off in lively fashion with the Mexican conductor bringing a musical postcard from his home country, Huapango by Jose Pablo Moncayo. The lightweight nine-minute piece doesn’t offer much beyond any number of similar dance-flavored Mexican overtures, but under Prieto’s energetic direction, the CSO put Huapango across with all due vitality and rhythmic insistency, with special kudos for Chris Martin’s echt-mariachi trumpet solos.

The performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 could have used some of the same energy. Prieto led a routine and generalized performance heavy on bluster and lacking refinement and expressive nuance. The conductor found little depth in the Larghetto—-Beethoven’s first great symphonic slow movement—and the awkward balancing often made the symphony sound like an early 19th-century timpani concerto.

Prieto’s garrulous direction found little charm or humor in this score and no one hearing this music for the first time would guess the final movement is one of Beethoven’s wittiest inspirations. The conductor indulged in so much hand-shaking with musicians after the performance you could easily believe that he’s on the Cook County ballot in November.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

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