MUSIC REVIEW : Difficult Paths Conquered as Yo-Yo Ma Points the Way


It looked almost like business as usual at the Orange County Performing Arts Center when the Pacific Symphony opened its 17th season on Wednesday.

Carl St.Clair, the wiry maestro in residence, was on hand to conduct a discerning, oddly balanced program of Dvorak and Wagner. The festivities began without fuss and muss--no ritualistic anthem, no speeches, no floral sprouts on the stage. The capacity audience applauded happily at every cadence, even at those that happened to occur between concerto movements.

But this was no ordinary garden-variety concert at Segerstrom Hall. Yo-Yo Ma was the extravagant soloist.

There may be better cellists in the world today--cellists who can fuse virtuosity and introspection with comparable ease, cellists who can untie the gnarliest knots with comparable elegance, cellists who, when they don't happen to be playing, listen to the orchestra just as intently and just as appreciatively. There may be cellists who command a comparable measure of taste, intelligence and technique, with each attribute perfectly reinforcing the other.

But I don't know who they are.

Ma is a phenomenon. He proved it twice on this occasion.

First, he surprised nearly everyone by interpolating a world premiere: "Seven Tunes Heard in China" by Bright Sheng. This intriguing set of character miniatures on folk themes--sometimes eloquent, sometimes piquant, always clever--had been commissioned by a local arts patron, George Cheng, in honor of his wife's birthday. The first performance took place at a private celebration in Irvine on Monday.

Ma performed the compact solos with fierce concentration and considerable wit. In the process, he took obvious delight in an opportunity to mimic some ancient ancestors of his relatively modern Stradivarius (anno 1712).

Then, to send everyone home ecstatic, he turned to the Dvorak Concerto. He doesn't bathe the rhetoric in deep, dark, heroic tone in the exalted manner of a Piatigorsky. He prefers a more intimate approach, savoring the subtle nuance and engaging the orchestra in a conversation of equals.

On this occasion, he exulted in lyricism without gush, in urgency without excess, in romantic rapture bolstered by delicate sensuality. And, wonder of wonders, he never succumbed to the pitch problems that have plagued cellists in this challenge for exactly a century. Even the fearsome passages of ascending agitation rang clean and true.

St.Clair and the orchestra provided generally sensitive support. Make that collaboration.

Only one problem nagged. Ma's slender cello sometimes got swamped in tutti passages. From Row M, downstairs, it was difficult to gauge whether the imbalance should be blamed on the conductor or the acoustician.

The first half of the program, the Ma-less half, proved less exciting but no less interesting.

St.Clair inaugurated the season with a snazzy and spiffy dash through Dvorak's "Carnival Overture." Then--exploring terra not exactly cognita or firma in these environs, and flirting with the danger of a quiet cadence before intermission--he ventured the Prelude and "Liebestod" from "Tristan und Isolde."

Just as he gave the cue to begin Wagner's ethereal ode to love and death, the conductor's composure, and that of the audience too, was destroyed by a sharp popping noise. A spokesperson later explained that a lighting fixture had exploded. St.Clair had the good sense to stop the orchestra in mid-phrase, wait for calm to be restored, and start the pianissimo introduction again.

Still, all was not quite well. A celebrated psychomusicologist--I think it must have been Dr. Ruth--once observed that "Tristan" represents one extraordinarily long, delayed orgasm. For all their care and conviction, St.Clair and his orchestra paved the expressive path with a series of premature ejaculations.

The communal spirit seemed more than willing. The climaxes came too early, however, and when they came they seemed too brash. The symphonic ensemble sounded a bit coarse, with treble overpowering bass resonance. In the end, youthful passion robbed the music of its essential breadth and ultimate serenity.

Some things take time.

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