At Boston Symphony, Yo-Yo Ma takes fresh journey into Dvorak
The Dvorak Concerto must haunt the dreams of cello soloists. With a smaller concerto repertoire than that of violinists or pianists, and sadly, an even smaller sub-section of that repertoire deemed of interest to a wide concert-going public, cellists are asked to perform this work again and again. The path of least resistance for any player might be to find one dependable interpretation and stick to it, even if it starts to calcify into routine. With its haunting and majestic virtuosity, this piece is still almost guaranteed to bring down the house.
And then there is another approach, one taken by Yo-Yo Ma with the Boston Symphony Orchestra last night at Symphony Hall. Instead of pressing the automatic-pilot button, Ma pressed reboot and delivered a performance unlike any I have heard. Tempos were slow and the rubato extreme, but most striking was the moment-by-moment granularity in the music-making, a sense that Ma wanted you to hear and feel every detail of this capacious score. No passage would be deemed merely transitional. The slow movement, sometimes given the feel of a relaxed and songful interlude between the two grand statements on either side, here felt like a country all its own. Ma wanted to stay there for a while, meet the locals, and make chamber music with every one of them.
The Spanish conductor Juanjo Mena proved an exceedingly willing partner, and there were some notable contributions from the orchestra. Richard Sebring once again found a way to weightlessly loft the second note of the famed horn solo and gracefully unfurled the rest from there. Concertmaster Malcolm Lowe’s third-movement duet with Ma had an appealing ease. Did other moments go too far toward the idiosyncratic? There is an argument to be made that relentless repetition creates a hunger for interpretive novelty that then breeds musical distortions, and one veteran concert-goer found the performance overindulgent. I found it riveting.
After intermission came the BSO’s first performance of Bartok’s “The Wooden Prince,’’ a ballet written to a scenario by Béla Balázs. It tells of a prince who cannot win over the princess until he fashions a wooden prince with which she then falls in love. Bartok’s wonderfully imaginative score tracks the action with a kind of cinematic accuracy. Mena’s highly demonstrative conducting drew vivid and often precise playing from the BSO, though at times it felt more like an accumulation of sonic detail than a narrative with its own inner life.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.