When Yo-Yo Ma comes to town, it’s not just a concert — it’s an event.
Palpable excitement permeated the Kauffman Center on Friday night as the world-renowned cellist appeared at Helzberg Hall with the Kansas City Symphony under the baton of his longtime friend and colleague Michael Stern.
You’d just about have to be a visitor from Mars to be unaware of Ma, who has produced a remarkable 15 Grammy Award-winning recordings. Besides traditional classical repertory, he has played and championed Argentinean tangos by Astor Piazzola, bluegrass music and traditional melodies from China and the Silk Road.
The orchestra tested the hungry audience’s patience by placing Ma last on the program.
The first half of the concert opened with a rousing rendition of Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture. Beginning with a hushed tone, the orchestra played with admirable blend and balance. Stern delivered effective stylistic contrast, alternating energetic phrases with melodies with smoother articulations.
The performers approached the work with romantic sensibility, stretching phrases in the slower sections and infusing them with energy and passion in the faster ones.
The final section, based on the drinking song "Gaudeamus igitur," was broad and bombastic, and drew hearty applause from the audience.
For years, Michael Stern has proved himself an imaginative programmer with the ability to strike a marvelous balance between popular works and uncommon repertory. The orchestra also performed the rarely heard Concerto for Orchestra by 20th-century Polish composer Witold Lutosławski. Writing under the shadow of Soviet censure of “formalism” in contemporary styles, the composer used folk music and dance as the raw materials from which he constructed the three-movement work.
The darkly colored opening featured string basses and pulsing timpani. Upper strings, wind and brass gradually joined the others, and the orchestral fabric soon turned into a sonic spectacular.
It wasn't long before it was clear that the one of the composer's greatest strengths lie in his rich palette of orchestral colors. Against a thick texture of orchestral sound, solo violin, flute, clarinet and other instrumental lines blended effectively.
The second movement opened with a very rapid passage for the upper strings. The passage was difficult, and the strings were not quite together with their intonation or rhythm. The rhythmically intense finale was, unfortunately, interrupted by a rogue cell phone.
After the intermission, Ma took the stage to a warm and extended round of applause from both the audience and the orchestra. Ma and the ensemble performed the Concerto in B Minor for Cello and Orchestra, by Antonin Dvořák, written during the final year the composer was living and working in the United States.
After the orchestra played the opening robust theme and lovely second theme, Ma repeated and developed the themes on the cello.
Ma played the opening theme beautifully, but the slower second theme was absolutely stunning. The tempo slowed to a near crawl and Ma played with sheer beauty and soulful abandon. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the splendor of that moment — at least I hope I never do.
In the second movement Ma produced a rich, singing tone and highly expressive playing. The soaring opening theme in the third movement began in marchlike fashion.
It was fascinating to watch the soloist interact not only with the conductor, but with the orchestra members. His beaming face reveled in the beauty of the moment and encouraged his fellow musicians. The final moments of the piece were both thrilling and compelling.
After vigorous applause and a few bows, Stern carried Ma’s cello and bow onstage. Ma clowned around a bit by mounting the podium and pretending to conduct. For an encore, he played a slow and very expressive reading of the Prelude from Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major.