It was an evening of heroics at Symphony Hall last night. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma has lived in the area most of his life, but he has long since graduated from local into universal hero. Guest conductor David Robertson won his own title as local hero last week when he stepped in for the injured James Levine and led the Boston Symphony to triumphs on tour. And the program ended with Strauss's ''A Hero's Life."
Ma received a royal welcome when he came onstage and a standing ovation after he finished Schumann's Cello Concerto, which is an indrawing piece that isn't often a crowdpleaser. But he collaborated with the orchestra to play it with such freedom, discipline, intimacy and poetry that the audience basked not in the glow of celebrity but in the warmth and tenderness of the music.
The conductor opened with the ''Romanian Concerto" by the 28-year-old Gyorgy Ligeti, writing in a traditional folk-influenced style, but already weaving magical orchestral sonorities. At one point, two horns -- one onstage, one in the second balcony -- conducted a dialogue across the whole expanse of the hall. In the old days, Arthur Fiedler would immediately have kidnapped this piece for the Pops.
Robertson has always been a probing, assured musician who has sometimes seemed a little deficient in the charisma quotient. Not so last night, when he brandished the baton like a Ninja sword with sweep, slash, cut, and gleam. He didn't wallow in the hot tub of Strauss's self-congratulatory tone poem, but instead led it with stride and purpose. Apart from an out-of-tune call to war from the offstage trumpets, the orchestra played it gorgeously, and concertmaster Malcolm Lowe upheld the honor of local string players with a luscious, witty portrait of ''The Hero's Companion."
At the end, Robertson sprung a surprise, carrying a boxed bottle of champagne (Charles Heidsieck '85) onstage as a birthday present to Lowe; orchestra and audience struck up a chorus of you-know-what.