Review: Yo-Yo Ma Dazzles at Boston Symphony Orchestra Performance

Yo Yo Ma, Charles Dutoit and the Boston Symphony Orchestra during a standing ovation at Saturday night's show at Boston Symphony Hall. (Photo by Andrea Asuaje)
Written by Andrea Asuaje

By Andrea Asuaje
BU News Service

Charles Dutoit is celebrating his 80th birthday in style.

The octogenarian took the stage on Saturday night to guest conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra and master cellist Yo-Yo Ma in a concert of crowd favorites by English composers: William Walton’s overture “Portsmouth Point,” Edward Elgar’s cello concert in E minor and Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” suite.

The concert started promptly at 8 p.m. with the Walton overture, a piece from the early 20th century but with elements pleasantly similar to the scores of current period dramas. The piece, inspired by a painting of a seaside port, is energetic, percussive and expressive, transporting listeners to busy streets and loading docks featured in the original work of art. The overture was a terrific start to the evening’s program.

Jumping ahead, the final piece of the evening was “The Planets” suite — a series of seven movements each representing a planet (minus Earth and Pluto.)

The suite starts with Mars, nicknamed “The Bringer of War.” Brash and tense, Mars is an attention-grabber from the first few measures. Here, however, the orchestra may have been a bit too loud, the brass and percussive instruments reverberating a bit excessively through the hall. The forte in Mars, along with Jupiter, “The Bringer of Jollity,” were nearly jarring at times, though the dynamic variety and precision (aside from the loudest of loud) were extraordinary throughout the entire suite.

Venus, “The Bringer of Peace,” was tranquil, angelic and generally lovely, particularly the solos from several musicians, including concertmaster Malcolm Lowe. Mercury, “The Winged Messenger,” lived up to its name: flighty, quirky and fast. Jupiter, perhaps the most well-known movement of the suite, was magnificent — melodic and moving with perfect dynamic highs and lows (though correct me if I misheard, other Saturday evening concert-goers, but was there an early start from a musician on stage?)

The movement is a crowd-pleaser for a reason: It’s simply beautiful.

Saturn, “The Bringer of Old Age,” is probably the least interesting movement of the suite, with its steady rhythms resembling a clock. Uranus, “The Magician,” could easily replace Paul Dukas’ famous “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” in a remake of Disney’s “Fantasia”; the movement is overwhelmingly cinematic in nature. The suite wraps up with Neptune, “The Mystic,” the movement that most resembles the spacey, dreamy and mysterious scores of science-fiction and fantasy movies of today. The women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang along with the orchestra — from backstage! — to end the suite in a hauntingly beautiful fashion. It would have been nice to feature the choir more prominently onstage; many concert-goers were whispering and wondering if the choir was, in fact, just a recording.

But it was the piece that came in the middle of the program that truly shone. Elgar’s cello concerto, performed by cellist extraordinaire Yo-Yo Ma, was practically flawless. What can be said about Ma that has not been said before? He is an absolute gift to classical music and his fans. His work throughout the concerto — the fluidity of his movements, his flawless delivery and dynamic range, his palpable passion for the piece itself, and his mastery of the music and his instrument — was nothing short of perfection. Ma’s intensity and dedication to the piece and to the performance was so apparent. He often smiled to the other musicians and moved as if he were the second conductor on the stage.

When he finally played his last note, Ma received an immediate standing ovation, which he took alongside Dutoit. The two left the stage and returned not once, but twice, for three full standing ovations.

Not a bad way to celebrate a birthday.

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