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Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2009

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma’s Gorgeous Tone at MSO Concert

Classical Review

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Yo-Yo Ma is the biggest draw in classical music. In a gala concert with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra last Wednesday he delivered everything we’ve come to expect from him in the Schumann Cello Concerto: gorgeous tone, heartfelt commitment and obvious joy in passionate music-making.

Known for his gregarious and generous spirit, it was not a surprise when Ma declined to play a solo encore, but instead performed a cello duo with MSO principal Joseph Johnson. It was a lesson for the many music students there to hear Ma rein in his tone and match the sound of his playing partner as the two cellos gracefully phrased together.

This was our first experience of Edo de Waart as a concerto conductor. To his credit he kept the orchestra down to a very quiet level as accompaniment. Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 was a little less sharp than the performance heard the previous Saturday, but more full-blooded. The tempos felt slightly faster as well.

The Friday MSO subscription concert featured De Waart conducting two MSO principals in the Brahms “Double Concerto.” Violinist Frank Almond and cellist Johnson play with tone that is complementary in combination. Both took a lyrical approach to phrasing, giving the concerto satisfying and lovely shape. Qigang Chen (b. 1955), a Chinese-born composer living in Paris, writes what might be called contemporary Asian impressionism. In The Five Elements shimmering orchestral colors emerged, mostly in pastel hues, occasionally peppered with vividness.

Because of the Ma gala midweek there was likely less rehearsal available for Beethoven Symphony No. 7. Though De Waart let the orchestra play with more freedom than in the rest of the music heard in this recently begun season, his priorities of balance and rhythmic tightness were still evident. I like how he doesn’t dawdle between movements. It’s too soon in his tenure to discern how much of the blend and balance is due to his musical leadership, and how much is because of the new orchestra set up further back on the stage, more directly under the acoustic shell. Whatever the reason, the ensemble improvements are noticeable.

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