Ma’s the Life of This Birthday Party


There’s a debate going on as to whether classical musicians should show more involvement when they play. One side feels that audiences would relate better to the music if they did. Classical music might even become more popular. The other side feels that music should be left to speak for itself, without any enhancement of personality.

Anyone watching cellist Yo-Yo Ma play on the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “John Williams: A 70th Birthday Celebration” concert Sunday afternoon at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion would have had no doubt about the issue.

Ma’s involvement with music was so intense, so happy and so luminous that it almost didn’t matter what he was playing. His joy in making music reached out to the audience, back to the orchestra and over to Williams on the podium.


He played Williams’ music with heart and with subtlety, with energy and with commitment, whether it was the Cello Concerto written for him in 1993, two pieces from the 1999 film “Angela’s Ashes,” “Elegy” for Cello and Orchestra (1997-2001) or two sections (“Rosewood” and “Pickin’ ”) of Three Pieces for Solo Cello (2000).

Ma savored every melodic line and each climatic moment. Even when he wasn’t playing, he seemed to be riding a wave created by the other musicians and telegraphed his happiness to them.

The all-Williams concert, a benefit for the Musicians Pension Fund, fell into two parts, each showing a different side of the composer. People coming to the sold-out program expecting to hear his film music had to wait until the second half.

The first half was devoted to Williams’ serious concert music. That included “For Seiji!”--composed for Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony--and the Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, two pieces in tune with 20th century trends in music. You could hear stylistic and structural antecedents as honorable and as disparate as Bartok, Webern and Vaughan Williams in both works.

John Williams’ film music is a distillation of the same approach actually. Whether for “Angela’s Ashes” or the inspirational White House-commissioned “American Journey,” it’s music more complex than first greets the ear. There can be a certain harmonic and melodic frustration, or indeterminacy, to it. It strives for an endless melody, and that allows short-term goals to be reached, making for memorable themes and motifs, but long-term goals prove more elusive. Things don’t end where you’d expect them to. The music concludes; it doesn’t arrive at a perfect resolution.

Only one part of the concert had any film accompaniment. That was “American Journey,” a selection of three of six segments of pictorial music made for Steven Spielberg’s “The Unfinished Journey,” a film created at the request of then-President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and given its premiere at the Lincoln Memorial on New Year’s Eve 1999.


In the lineage of Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait” and his 1939 educational documentary “The City” (two other works for narrator and orchestra), the Spielberg film tracks American history. The three segments seen Sunday were “Immigration and Building,” “Civil Rights and the Women’s Movement” and “Flight and Technology,” and Williams’ music mostly served to underline each image; when airplanes take flight, the music ascends right along with them. Alfre Woodard and Paul Winfield were the dramatic narrators of texts by Rita Dove, Robert Pinsky, Maya Angelou, Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr.

Williams led the flying theme from “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” as the single encore. Then the orchestra surprised him by playing “Happy Birthday,” reinforced by the audience.