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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, December 17, 2010 - Volume 38 Issue 51
Yo-Yo, Schwarz, Shostakovich: An unbeatable combo
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Yo-Yo, Schwarz, Shostakovich: An unbeatable combo

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Yo-Yo Ma with the Seattle Symphony
December 7
Benaroya Hall


Gerard Schwarz does Shostakovich well - so well, in fact, that his powerful control in the Shostakovich 'Cello Concerto No. 1' threw everything else in this concert into stark contrast. The Tchaikovsky 'Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture' was thrown at us with energetic but slapdash loudness, lacking warmth and orchestral balance. The 'Suite from 'Der Rosenkavalier,' Op. 59' was similarly unpolished, although it did have more warmth and schmaltz than Schwarz's leaden performance of the opera at Seattle Opera years ago.

The concert began with a world premiere performance of a piece commissioned by the SSO to commemorate Gerard Schwarz's 25th and final year as music director. Composed by Bernard Rands (b. 1934), it was skillfully orchestrated and blessedly short. Free of the all-too-frequent over-orchestration of many contemporary compositions, it nonetheless did not engage these ears beyond some novel juxtapositions of instruments and a certain orchestral dialogue. A choir made up of one of each of the primary brass instruments engaged the strings in an intensely layered conversation of sounds. Mildly interesting and seemingly well performed, it did not overstay its welcome.

But the whole reason this one-night-only concert was an instant sell-out was the appearance of Yo-Yo Ma as cellist for the Shostakovich. Much as I like Ma, the reason I am reviewing this evening is the almost mystical connection Schwarz seems to have with the music of Dmitri Shostakovich. I have yet to hear him conduct a less than wonderful performance of this composer's works. I have learned over the years that Schwarz can do anything he sets his mind to, and for some reason the substance of this composer's works grabs his devotion like few others. (Mahler, Janacek, Bartok & these usually pull excellent work from Schwarz.)

From the opening orchestral response to Ma's first notes (upon which the whole movement is based), the players seemed instantly to be of a single mind. Not just a bunch of professionally competent musicians, but an organic whole, driven by the clear story they were trying to tell. The contrast to everything that preceded was a shock. Suddenly there were nuances, meanings whispered darkly, and an energy whose power threatened to explode the obvious restraint imposed by the brilliance of the conductor's understanding of the internal conflict that was scarcely hidden behind the ironic buoyancy of the tune.

I have not often praised principal horn, John Cerminaro, but his particular sound was perfectly appropriate to this music. The horn has a huge role here, and Cerminaro reveled in his duets with Ma's cello. They had a kind of romp and worked perfectly together.

Everyone acknowledges Yo-Yo Ma's mastery. His instrument seemed but an extension of himself. His commitment to this great music showed on his face and in his sound. The audience was attentive and silent, even through the long, slow 'Cadenza' that eventually quickens and leads into the final movement. The ovation he received upon entering the stage was repeated at the close. No longer a young man (b. 1955), Ma showed that his musical motivation has not diminished. If anything, his passion seemed greater than earlier. May he play on for decades to come!

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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