The cellist Yo-Yo Ma is one of only two or three classical musicians whose name still elicits a glimmer of recognition from the general public. Not surprisingly, regional orchestras everywhere want to book him.
Ma’s fame was readily apparent at his Nashville Symphony Orchestra concert on Wednesday night at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. He was greeted with a thunderous ovation the moment he walked onstage. And after his impassioned rendition of Elgar’s Cello Concerto, a group of young fans raised seven large poster cards that posed the question: Can-We-Take-A-Photo-With-You? Ma, waiving from the stage, seemed eager to indulge them. No wonder he’s such a beloved figure.
One suspects that Ma’s fame, with its uncanny ability to fill a classical concert even on a Wednesday night, is just a nice side benefit for music director Giancarlo Guerrero and the musicians of the Nashville Symphony. It was clear the moment Ma walked onstage that he loves this orchestra, especially its cello section, which he acknowledged with a wink, waive and smile. Judging from their deeply felt performance of the Elgar, it seems clear that the musicians love Ma back.
Ma’s performance was magnificent – the best I’ve heard from this artist in many years. His tone was resplendent, his interpretation thoughtful and intensely musical. He was at his level best in the Adagio, which he approached as a kind of gentle meditation. He was equally effective in fast movements, playing with immediacy and passion.
Guerrero and the NSO responded to Ma with terrific playing of their own. Throughout much of the concert, Ma played at the razor’s edge of audibility, his pianissimo notes coming across as a gentle whisper. Guerrero and the NSO, to their credit, provided an even softer blanket of sound to support Ma during his gentlest musings. Moreover, they stuck to him like Velcro during fleet-fingered passages.
A couple of years ago, NSO cellist Matt Walker composed an encore for Ma and Toronto Symphony cellist Joe Johnson called (what else?) Yo-Yo Joe. After the Elgar, Ma called Walker over to perform this lively piece, which opens with bluesy music before seguing into a vibrant Latin dance. Ma and Walker played every note with energy, humor and joy.
There was much to admire in the NSO’s rendition of Brahms’ Symphony No. 1, which opened the concert. Guerrero conducted with sweep and a sure sense of the work’s overall architecture, resulting in a performance that flowed irresistibly. Just as importantly, Guerrero seemed focused on the quality of the orchestra’s sound, calling on his musicians to play bright, lean melodies. This had a beneficial effect on this symphony, which often seems overly dense and plodding.
What I liked best about Guerrero’s performance was his willingness at times to get out of the way, allowing his musicians to feel their way through this music. The musicians, for their parts, responded with playing that was sensitive and spontaneous. I’ve always believed that the success of a Brahms symphony depends on the quality of the French horn playing, and on Wednesday principal horn player Leslie Norton and her section outdid themselves, performing with heartfelt emotion, a warm tone and a clear love for the music of Johannes Brahms.
PHOTOS: Stephen Drake