Concert review: Yo-Yo Ma the seductive star of night with Toronto Symphony

Yo-Yo Ma performs Night Music: Voice in the Leaves with nine members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall (Dale Wilcox photo).

Yo-Yo Ma was on hand in Toronto this week to demonstrate how, very often, the finest musical artistry is one that you don’t see, only hear.

In the second of two performances with the Toronto Symphony at Roy Thomson Hall on Thursday night, the cellist made everything look so easy, while teasing a remarkably broad spectrum of sounds and textures from his instrument.

The showcase piece on the program was Edward Elgar’s 1918 Cello Concerto, the same piece he played at his first concert with the orchestra in 1979.

Despite hundreds of performances of this much-loved concerto over the intervening years, and the passage of more than six dozen albums filled with a wide range of classical and crossover music, Ma made the Elgar sound fresh and spontaneous.

The TSO, led by music director Peter Oundjian, made a fine accompanist, with Ma clearly in full engagement.

The capacity crowd lapped it up, pretty much guaranteeing the cellist who inspired the Music Garden on Queens Quay yet another return visit to Toronto.

The concert opened with Ma in Night Music: Voice in the Leaves, a work he commissioned 12 years ago for his Silk Road Ensemble from Uzbek composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky.

The atmospheric piece, redolent with exotic sounds inspired by the folk music of Uzbekistan, was a brave bit of programming.

Where usually the Toronto Symphony fills the stage, here were only nine members of the orchestra – all but one a principal – along with the cellist and conductor. But the nuanced intensity of the performance put a lie to the small forces.

Ma, playing as one of many, not as a star soloist, again revealed the depth of his technique and the breadth of his musicality.

The central piece of the evening was Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, born in 1940, during the second big European war. Its three dance-based movements showcase every section of the orchestra.

Where the Elgar, born at the tail end of World War I, is laced with shades of melancholy, Rachmaninov’s final big composition is tinged with menace. The triumph of good over evil was no sure thing at the time when the pianist-composer fled Europe for the peace and safety of the United States. Rachmaninov, a depressive man at the best of times, was not in good spirits, and these dances are a large-scale manifestation of these emotions.

Oundjian shaped the music elegantly, giving it soft contours and teasing out gorgeous, burnished sounds from the orchestra. But the menace was notably absent, robbing the music of much of its visceral impact.

Fortunately, the spotlight was on Ma, and he succeeded in satisfying every expectation.

This week’s performances of the Symphonic Dances were recorded for a future album release on the orchestra’s TSOlive label. It will be interesting to hear how the interpretation sounds from the point of view of the microphones.

John Terauds


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