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In performance: NSO and Yo-Yo Ma

In Wednesday's/Thursday's Washington Post (different editions, abridged): NSO offers a gala pleasingly out of the ordinary, by Anne Midgette.

Imagine a standard-issue bakery cake, embellished with thick white frosting, and you have your typical orchestral gala: a sugary-sweet confection. Now imagine slicing into that cake and finding, instead of your typical white crumb glued together with standard-issue icing, the creation of a fine French pastry chef, and you have the National Symphony Orchestra’s final concert of the season, featuring Yo-Yo Ma, on Tuesday night. It was still fun to eat, but it was a lot more substantial and nuanced than such things usually are.
(read complete review after the jump)

Your standard gala -- like, for instance, the one that opened the orchestra’s 2009-10 season last September -- features lots of short fun pieces from the lighter side of the repertory: opera overtures and interludes, sections of tone poems. Tuesday’s gala chose Ravel to represent the idea of lightness and fun. But while Ravel wrote music that was sometimes on a small scale and is often beloved with audiences (“Bolero” comes to mind), he is not a cheap thrill: his music is dazzlingly inventive. Tuesday’s all-Ravel first half, with “Alborada del gracioso,” the suite from “Ma mère l’oye” (Mother Goose), and the “Rapsodie espagnole,” offered more thoughts and ideas and timbres in a short span of time than many entire programs.

Your standard gala also offers a star soloist, and Tuesday night obligingly offered Yo-Yo Ma, one of the most beloved figures in the classical music world (the roar of excitement that rose from the audience at his entrance, after the intermission, was touching). But while Ma welcomes the affection, he doesn’t trade on it. He could have played a short virtuosic showcase and abundantly filled the bill. Instead, he performed “Azul,” effectively a concerto in which the cello shares solo honors with two percussionists and a hyperaccordion (a regular accordion with electronic special effects), which Osvaldo Golijov wrote for him in 2006 and revised extensively a year later. It was long, thoughtful, different, and real: anything but an easy star showpiece.

Galas aren’t always led by big-name conductors. Jeffrey Kahane, the conductor/pianist, is a familiar quantity in the music world; he offered a lot of energy, a clear beat, and an impressive ability to keep the orchestra together coupled with an ability to get them to play very loud. He was great at rhythm, marshalling downright funkiness in some of the Spanish dances of the “Rapsodie espagnole,” though with a hint of instability that was now exhilarating, keeping things driving forward, and now dislocating, as if the music were about to fall apart. He was less adept at finding the magic otherworldliness between the notes, though the harps plunged into marvelously goopy glissandos at every opportunity, birds twittered and the bassoon blatted out the lines of Beauty’s Beast in the fairy-tales of “Mother Goose,” this was Ravel scrubbed clean.

I must confess to a personal block about Golijov. I always want to connect with his music more than I do. That there is much to connect with I don’t doubt; at concert after concert, friends and colleagues are in raptures about how much they like it. Golijov brings hipness to classical music, in terms that both classical and non-classical fans can connect with. His music cuts through boundaries as if slicing through, well, frosting: “Azul” fuses echoes of Couperin with the hiss of brushes striking drumheads, the rattles and whines of a bevy of colorful percussion instruments (Cyro Baptista and Jamey Haddad), and the drone of the hyperaccordion (an accordion with electronic enhancement, here played by the man who designed it, Michael Ward-Bergeman). It’s got a whole jungle full of birdsong, with swishing wave-like noises that take the whole thing perilously close to New Age; it’s got a cadenza that sounds like an ecstatic jam session between the four soloists. Yet for all its eclecticism it builds in a single arc -- its core the long second movement, propelled upward by quasi-Minimalist rhythmic repetitions -- until the exuberant jam session is capped by the churchly sobriety of the orchestral idiom, returning as if to remind everyone of where they are, though more focusing the mood than interrupting it. I can see what he’s doing; I can even appreciate it. I just don’t find myself responding; it’s like watching a be-in and not quite feeling the love.

It's a strong and genuine piece, though, and the audience knew it. The final difference from the standard-issue gala was the genuine, shouting excitement of the standing ovations.

Edited to add: Other views: Charles T. Downey on

By Anne Midgette  |  June 29, 2010; 11:20 PM ET
Categories:  local reviews  
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I fully agree with the sentiment in the second-to-last paragraph. I am a huge fan of Yo Yo Ma, he inspired me to pick up the cello in the 5th grade. I have not seen a live performance of his in 10 years so my excitement and expectations were enormously high. With that said, I simply did not feel it last night. Perhaps I should have done more research on the performance before hand, and for that my disappointment is mostly my own fault. To expand Ms. Midgette's culinary motif, I felt a performance like last night was like taking the finest wine out of the cellar to make a sangria. To me, talent like Yo Yo Ma's is to be respected and enjoyed alone, only to be complimented not overshadowed. At times during Mr. Ma's performance, you could not even hear him over the cacophony of "nature" sounds and twirling rattles; the visual distraction as intense as the aural. Here's hoping to next year.

Posted by: DCZap | June 30, 2010 9:30 PM | Report abuse

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