Cellist makes new music, old music, great music

October 14, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

If Americans liked classical music in general as much as they love Yo-Yo Ma in particular, the future of symphonic music in this country would be bright indeed. Last night Meyerhoff Hall was packed. The beloved cellist was to play three cello concertos with the Baltimore Symphony orchestra and music director David Zinman.

There is little doubt in this writer's mind that Ma is the greatest cellist before the public, and there are occasions -- such as last night's concert -- when he is convinced that Ma is the best ever. There are his down-to-bone emotionality and expressiveness, his perpetually singing tone and precise intonation, and his all-but-unlimited technical arsenal that includes a left hand that floats up and down the finger board effortlessly and right hand that produces lightning-like, infinitely varied bow strokes.

Ma has been much preoccupied in recent years about the future of music. That is why he has been helping to commission works for his instrument by composers whose music he loves -- such as Richard Danielpour, whose new Cello Concerto Ma performed last night.

Danielpour, 38, long considered of this country's best younger composers, has produced the finest new concerto this listener has heard in years. It was not diminished by a program that included what are perhaps the two greatest concertos in the cellist's repertory, the Dvorak B Minor and the Elgar E Minor.

The 25-minute concerto, which is played continuously, is divided into sections with titles -- "Invocation," "Profanation" and "Prayer and Lamentation" -- with a Hebraic flavor. The opening of the work, an endlessly descending solo cello line,suggests a cantorial invocation., This piece, which calls for the cellist to act as a tragic hero in a vividly colored scena created by the orchestra, is profoundly moving: It seizes the listener by the throat and does not let up. Ma performed the piece with utter conviction.

The accompaniment by Zinman and the orchestra in this rhythmically tricky and technically demanding, but completely accessible, work was magnificent.

The Elgar benefited from Ma's extraordinary dynamic range, which is capable of a thread of pianissimo in that mournful work's most inward and intense moments. This cellist has always performed this piece with emotional generosity and incredible fingers. This performance suggested a newly deepened immersion in its passionate mysteries.

The performance of the Dvorak Concerto kept a perfect balance between romantic passion and tenderness and was without a hint of sentimentality. The cellist's final bow was so exquisitely drawn out that it seemed to suspend time. It was the sort of moment that could make anyone fall in love with music.

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