Sunday, September 18, 2011

Music I'm Listening To: Yo-Yo Ma with MTT Conducting the San Francisco Symphony (September 15, 2011)

Thursday night [September 15] I attended a performance of the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. Yo-Yo Ma was guest soloist in Hindemith's Cello Concerto of 1940. The concert opened with Beethoven's Lenore Overture No. 3 and closed, after intermission, with a performance of the Symphony No. 1, by Brahms.

The last time I heard Yo-Yo Ma was in Tokyo, about 15 years ago, at a sold-out concert for which I was unable to get good tickets. Many of the seats had been bought up by corporations and given away to clients--people that didn't really have much interest in being there except to see a musical celebrity (that's my theory anyway). Whatever the reason, the concert was marred by a very noisy, inattentive audience and by my distance from the stage. Thursday was a rather different experience: I got the impression the crowd was there for the music and not the star status of the soloist (although a few people left at intermission). Perhaps it helped that the concert was being taped--before the performance began a man came out on stage and asked everyone to be as quiet as possible so as not to mar the recording. Also, last night I was sitting close to the performers.

I'm used to sitting at the back of the first floor at Davies Symphony Hall, but having noticed a dead spot just under the overhang of the balcony, I had the seats changed this season to the fourth row. I like being able to see the instruments at close range--stringed instruments come in a fascinating variety of colors, ranging from deep chestnut brown through various reddish tones and into almost blonde shades. I like being able to watch fingers flying up and down the fingerboards of the cellos and I like feeling the low-frequency vibrations of the string basses. Close seats allow a good view of the soloist (although on Thursday night the conductor blocked my view as often as not). On the down side, the sound can lack integration. Sitting at the right side of the hall (facing the stage), I got rather too much of the basses and the cellos while the violins and other sections of the orchestra seemed slightly distant. As the closer seats are also lower seats, you don't get a full view of the players when sitting close; I missed being able to see all of the orchestra in action, and it was difficult to see which musicians the conductor was acknowledging after each piece. So, the up-front location has both advantages and disadvantages.

Watching Mr. Ma play reminded me of seeing Rostropovich play in Tokyo in the late 1990s and, for what are probably less obvious reasons, of watching violinist Hilary Hahn in San Francisco a couple of years ago. Rostropovich was well into his seventies when I saw him, but he had a focus, intensity, and sheer energy that would have been remarkable in a man half his age. Mr. Ma has the same sort of presence, the same sort of focus and intensity while playing.Both men (and Hahn) simultaneously exude a relaxed self-assuredness and an inner joyfulness that seems perpetually in danger of brimming over. After the Hindemith Mr. Ma spent as much time applauding for the orchestra with a grin of pleasure as he did acknowledging the applause meant for him. He assumes a rather more slouched posture than many cellists when playing, which adds to his general air of easy-going confidence. During passages in the Hindemith concerto when the cello rests, Mr. Ma frequently turned half around to look at the orchestra with a broad smile on his face. Ms. Hahn did something similar during the performance of the Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto I attended. In both cases, you could almost hear an inner voice saying "What fun this is--how lucky I am to be here!" The best performers at their best always seem to be having a great deal of fun, no matter how serious the music. I've seen it in performances by the New Century Chamber Orchestra, by Kyung-Wha Chung, by Elly Ameling, by conductors such as James Gaffigan and Gustavo Dudamel. It's infectious.

The performance of the Beethoven overture seemed correct but lacking in sparkle. I enjoyed hearing the Brahms Symphony No. 1 live for the first time--in places, the unison of the string sections was thrilling, concertmaster Alexander Barantschik played the solo violin sections near the end of the piece especially sweetly--but MTTs reading seemed uneven in the final movement, where the tempo was allowed to wander in a way that broke the tension written into the music--or so it seemed to me. I wonder why such familiar standards as the Beethoven and Brahms pieces were chosen to bracket the very mid-20th century Hindemith concerto (which turned out to be the highlight of the evening)? Despite a little confusion when Mr. Ma's music misbehaved (at one point MTT was crouched down, conducting with one hand, while reaching back with his other hand, trying to hold the pages open for the soloist), the orchestra was tight, focused, and electrifyingly precise. It's unusual to be able to single out a tympanist, but the man behind the copper pots was amazing on Thursday night--shooting out bullets of sound that punctuated some of the more exuberant passages with a superb combination of power and precision. The woodwinds were in top form as well (especially the oboe and flute), but that's normal in San Francisco. I'm familiar with some of the less well known modern cello concertos--those by Dutilleux and Lutoslawski, in particular--but the Hindemith was unfamiliar to me. I enjoyed it enough to think I'd like to hear it again. I wonder who has recorded it?

Photo of Yo-Yo Ma by Michael O'Neill, courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

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