Review: Yo-Yo Ma, Tilson Thomas unite for majestic music

Sep 21, 2011

by Woody Weingarten

Michael Tilson Thomas and Yo-Yo Ma may be — to mix both metaphors and genres — the greatest tag team since Captain Kirk met Mr. Spock.

Or maybe Joe Montana and Jerry Rice.

One recent evening found world-class cellist and world-class conductor in tandem at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco for Paul Hindemith’s Cello Concerto (1940), a difficult piece to absorb because of atonality that goes straight to the brain, skipping the heart entirely.

But Ma’s grandeur with his bow, and Tilson Thomas’ flourish with a baton he rarely wields, made the composition pleasurable.

Ma’s pure sound and flawless technical skill add strain to a reviewer’s job: No adequate superlatives leap to mind.

MTT is also at the peak of his game, unflustered even when an air-cooling breeze started flipping a page of Ma’s sheet music. The maestro simply kept conducting with his right hand, leaning slightly and using his left to ground the cellist’s fluttering sheet.

Visible, too, was Ma’s post-playing graciousness, exemplified by his hugging the orchestra’s principal cellist, Michael Grebanier.

Brahms’ Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, spotlighting kettledrums lovingly pulsated by David Herbert at the piece’s start and finish, finished off the evening’s segment of the San Francisco Symphony’s centennial celebration.

The opening triumph, Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 3, which was recorded during the concert for future release, featured a Tilson Thomas who caresses and cajoles the orchestra to build on its excellence.

Only once — for a sublimely amusing instant — did the audience take its collective eyes off the conductor and musicians, when people peered this way and that in search of an offstage trumpet soloist.

Ma, who’s played for eight American presidents, tends to smile a lot. The contagion of his expression, and his instrumental proficiency, lead the audience to react in kind.

During the Hindemith concerto, in fact, his face was intense much of the time. But in passages where he waited while the symphony plied its well-honed trade, he grinned like a little kid sorting through Halloween candy.

And when he’d resume playing, his bow became a warrior’s sword, repeatedly thrusting forward and back, intent on overpowering Hindemith’s challenging passages.

Ma won.

Going to the San Francisco Symphony can be exciting and restful at once. And it’s always a pleasure to watch Tilson Thomas in action.

He can move as gracefully as a ballet dancer, casually sway from side to side, or lurch with the power of a Transformer-type robot. His hands can in one moment quiver almost invisibly, like a butterfly landing on a flower, and be attached the next moment to flailing arms on the brink of crazily flying off a building’s roof.

The orchestra’s centennial celebration, which began Sept. 7 with a gala that featured violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Lang Lang, will include MTT conducting evenings of Mahler, Mozart and Stravinsky, Schubert, Debussy and others — ending at the tail of June with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9.

Also featured during the year will be concerts by the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

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