Sunday, May 16, 2010

An Up & Down Evening as CSO Plays With Yo-Yo

Classical Concert Review

Chicago Symphony Orchestra
with guest artist Yo-Yo Ma, Cello
May 13, 2010

Yo-Yo Ma has the distinction of being the only concert cellist, living or dead, that I can name. And though his name itself is quite memorable, I figure his renown--and numerous Grammy Awards--must be well-earned.

Having never seen him perform live before, and in sum only through a few short televised performances (including one at President Obama's inauguration), I purchased a ticket awhile back to see him Thursday night with the acclaimed Chicago Symphony (the same program was repeated Friday and Saturday).

Although far from a classical music aficionado or expert, I try to get to 1-2 CSO performances each season. Thus it wasn't a surprise nor cause for outrage that Yo-Yo Ma--as with other famed guest soloists whose names are promoted to prompt neophytes to buy tickets--was only onstage for 1 of 3 pieces played, or about 30 of 100 minutes of music.

As such, my "review," which especially in a classical music realm, should only be seen as a gauge of my personal enjoyment and not confused for a learned critique, covers the entire evening's performance and not merely the cello concerto on which Yo-Yo Ma performed in conjunction with the orchestra. A total of three pieces were played, all conducted by guest conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto (right).

While my evening at the symphony, was--as almost always--a worthwhile exploration beyond my natural entertainment habitats, I didn't acutely enjoy what I heard all that much, even compared to past CSO performances.

The first piece played, sans Yo-Yo Ma, was a suite from the score of the film Redes, composed by  Silvestre Revueltas in 1934-35. In simplistic terms, it didn't do much for me as it was somewhat dour and lacked the ravishing flourishes I like best in live symphonic music.

I felt similarly about the CSO's take on Shostakovich's Symphony No. 6, Op. 54, which concluded the evening. The last five minutes of the piece provided a scintillating crescendo, but the first 40 minutes or so seemed rather somnambulant, to the point that during the first half of it, one of the musicians (who wasn't playing during that section) seemed to be sleeping onstage.

As for the Cello Concerto, which the CSO commissioned from Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky specifically for the Yo-Yo Ma engagement, the world premiere rendition was pleasant enough, though often musically dissonant, and rarely managed to enthrall.

While Ma's playing was beautiful, he didn't provide me with any "oh wow" moments that I've enjoyed from other acclaimed virtuosos, even in atypical realms (for me), such as Itzhak Perlman, Evgeny Kissin, Savion Glover, McCoy Tyner and numerous opera singers. Perhaps it is the muted nature of the cello or the parameters of the piece, but I couldn't really perceive that Ma was doing anything far beyond the presumed capabilities of the other 10 cellists onstage. Although I was watching his hands through binoculars nearly the whole time, nothing really made me sit up and take special notice.

I am certainly not knocking Yo-Yo Ma, of whom Tribune classical music critic John von Rhein suggests, "it's hard to imagine any soloist playing this music with greater mastery," but if I pay good money to see a performer who's name is printed on the ticket, I hope to come away understanding what makes him or her so singular. In this case I didn't.

(If you want a more professional take on the cello concerto and entire evening, read von Rhein's review, though you may be hard pressed to discern whether he liked it or not.)

The video below doesn't have much to do with the performance I saw, but a few years ago, Yo-Yo Ma put out an album where he played compositions by Ennio Morricone, who wrote some of the all-time great movie scores. This is one of them.

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