Tom Strini
Review

Yo-Yo Ma, Edo de Waart, MSO

By - Sep 30th, 2009 03:40 pm
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Review: Wednesday night’s concert

Yo and Joe practice their encore. Photo by Patti Wenzel.

Yo and Joe practice their encore. Photo by Patti Wenzel.

Yo-Yo Ma, conductor Edo de Waart and the Milwaukee Symphony performed Robert Schumann’s Cello Concerto as if it were a long letter to a close friend. It opened with an eloquent, expansive declaration of passion and passed through graceful transitions into resigned melancholy and, finally, a light and playful celebration.

Schumann’s genius, and Ma’s and de Waart’s, lay in somehow making such disparate parts and the tissues of sound that link them into a coherent whole. Complete understanding and full realization of each sentiment made everything sound human and natural. Smartly measured pace, weight and volume gave the piece a convincing arc. Perhaps flight is a better word than arc; this piece begins dark and weighty and ends like a balloon dancing on shifting breezes.

Ma’s musicianship is a wonder of the world, but the last thing on his mind is impressing the world. We don’t love him because he’s a successful show-off. We love him because he loves music so much, and he’s good enough at it to spread that love  around. I know of no other musician who seems so completely and guilelessly happy while playing very difficult music. You could see and hear his joy in Marcus Center Uihlein Hall and could feel it spread through the audience. People knew that would happen because of him, and that is why Uihlein Hall sold out on a Wednesday night.

As an encore, Ma and Joseph Johnson, the MSO’s remarkable young principal cellist, played the finale of Jean Barriere’s (1705-1747) Duo for Two Cellos. They zipped through giddy scales that chase up and down the fingerboards, harmonized on a cheerfully gooey sentimental bit at the center, then were off to the races again. You would call the pace blistering except that the unbelievable speed came without apparent effort. They made a little joke out of trading cellos before they played; Yo-Yo walked off with Joe’s and had to come back across the stage to retrieve his own zillion-dollar instrument, and everyone laughed.

As a wise man once said, “When you’re that good it’s a lot of fun to play music.”

If Schumann’s concerto is an intimate letter, Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 is an epic novel.

De Waart and the orchestra played it after intermission, and nearly everyone stuck around to hear the 70-minute Fifth, even though a good portion of them probably heard it at the season-opening program on Saturday or Sunday.

I was pleased to hear it again, first because the orchestra was even sharper technically and more pointed in dramatic intent than it was in the electric reading heard Saturday. That performance roared by like a fast freight; Wednesday, I was ready for it, more prepared to hear both big structure and details.

This is hot Romantic music, but Mahler’s couched the passion within a brainy plan. For example: The incredibly violent storm in the second movement falls into a suspenseful calm based on a version of the second theme of the first movement. And that storm comes raging back as a coda to the genteel and fantastical waltzes of the Scherzo. This thing is really put together. I heard all sorts of connections along these lines as I listened Wednesday, and what a pleasure it was to connect the dots.

When you’re good at it, listening to difficult music is really fun.

The MSO and de Waart will be right back at it at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Oct. 2-3). Click here to find out more, and come back to ThirdCoast Digest to find out what the music director had to say about the upcoming program in an interview Wednesday afternoon.

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Yo-Yo Ma takes to the soloist’s platform. All photos by Patti Wenzel.

Feature Story: The Rehearsal

Yo-Yo Ma walked onto the Uihlein Hall stage Wednesday morning and the whole Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra broke into a smile. The players stamped their feet and clattered their bows in welcome.

Ma smiled back warmly and hugged principal cellist Joe Johnson and concertmaster Frank Almond. Then he took his place on the soloist’s platform to the left of music director Edo de Waart.

Ma, de Waart and the MSO were about to launch into Schumann’s Concerto for Cello, which they were to perform Wednesday evening on the same Marcus Center stage. The solo part is formidable and the drama in the music is dark and intense.

Did Ma take a deep sigh or close his eyes to get into character? He did not. He sat smiling and cheerful as a seven-year-old waiting for the merry-go-round to start.

When it did start, the vast, rich sound of Yo-Yo Ma’s cello exactly fit the chest-swelling passion and vigor of Schumann’s principal theme. While Ma made that sound, he was not engulfed in it. Even as he played, he turned and looked around the orchestra, smiling, making eye contact, spreading the joy of making music and sharpening coordination at the same time. Few soloists can afford to be so generous with their attention. Ma can because he is so utterly confident in his command of the music.

The interaction makes a difference. As orchestral interludes built to his entrances, Ma started moving with the rhythm and picking up on the orchestra’s energy. When he came in like a surfer on the crest of wave.

It was fun watching Ma mime little jokes to Almond, who with effort contained his laughter. The most charming interaction was between Johnson and Ma. They looked around the conductor to make eye contact to get section pizzicati exactly together with the first note of the soloists’ phrase. With each repetition, their preparations of bowing and plucking hands became larger and larger and more and more theatrical, until they were both grinning at their silliness.

When you’re as good as they are, it’s fun to make music.

It would have been easy and forgivable for de Waart and the orchesta to sit back and listen to Ma play, but the conductor wouldn’t settle for that. He often called out instructions over the music and occasionally stopped the music to get something just so.

“If you’re going to play that crescendo so waaAHHHH,” he said, amiably, to the first violins, “Yo-Yo might as well not play that run. So cresc just to mezzo-piano, please.”

This amused the cellist to no end.

YoYo Ma speaks with the cello section of the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra

Yo-Yo Ma speaks with the cello section of the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra.

Afterwards, Ma met with a few dozen Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra kids, who had sat spellbound through the rehearsal. Instead of fielding their questions, Ma asked them how he sounded. Was the balance right?

Of course they were too tongue-tied to answer, so Ma filled the gap:

“You know how when you hear your voice recorded, it sounds really bad?” he said. “It’s kind of like that when you play. One of the hardest things is to know how it sounds 20 or 30 or 40 feet away. It’s hard to tell, because I’m so close to the instrument. I’m in the bubble.”

Don’t worry about it, Yo-Yo. Your playing is so big that it brings the whole audience into the bubble.

Who: Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, conductor Edo de Waart, Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra

What: Schumann’s Cello Concerto, Mahler Symphony No. 5

Where: Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, 929 N. Water St.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (Sept. 30)

How Much: $50-$160 SOLD OUT; check the Marcus Center box office for turnbacks and status of the waiting list, 414 273-7206

Categories: Classical, Culture Desk

0 thoughts on “Review: Yo-Yo Ma, Edo de Waart, MSO”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I enjoyed your description and the photos, and I wish I had been there.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Lovely review and fascinating advance feature!

  3. Anonymous says:

    thanks for a GREAT review and a wonderful behind the scenes look at rehearsal – wish I would have been there!

  4. Anonymous says:

    A peek behind the curtain! Thank you!!

  5. Anonymous says:

    That’s one cute calf but Yo-Yo is adorable too. What a week for Milwaukee on the cultural front. Sounds like MSO rocked the proverbial house.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Outstanding article! While it couldn’t replace being there, I now feel that I have benefited from Ma’s presence here, at least in some small way.
    Thank you.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for bringing the arts news to all. Very interesting!

  8. Anonymous says:

    It’s hard to believe the Mahler was better on Wednesday than it was on SUnday. Thanks for the peek into this grand event.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Proof positive of what a conductor coup MSO has arranged, how the MSO easily responds and plays up to deWaart’s and Ma’s level, and what international stars the MSO is willing engage. Your writing is ever delightful in this new format! Nice to see several photos of the event!

  10. Anonymous says:

    What a nice behind-the-scenes article. The playfulness extended to the live concert – Yo Yo Ma was clearly making eye contact with, and grinning at, Frank Almond. You could sense they were having a lot of fun up there. I loved when Jones traded cellos with him for the encore.

  11. Anonymous says:

    Yo-Yo was a joy to hear and watch, but the Mahler was simply outstanding–one of the best interpretations I’ve ever heard, live or on disc. This promises very good things for the MSO and Milwaukee.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Really appreciated the backstage look. Of course it’s not so hard to be entertaining when the story is about Yo-Yo Ma. Excellent work Tom. Great to have you out there.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I WAS there (not at the rehearsal but at the concert) and it was wonderful to hear that Mahler twice in under a week. I was blown away by the conception of the Saturday performance, but thought Wednesday was even cleaner. And of course Yo-Yo is always a delight…hard to believe I’ve been hearing him for over 30 years. He gives so much joy–

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