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Yo-Yo Ma and McFerriun share magical genius



Ben Zander conducting.

Symphony Hall, Jan. 20.



YO-YO MA, BOBBY McFERRIN, and the Boston Philharmonic, led by Ben Zander, gave an unconventional, energetic performance in Symphony Hall on Sunday night. The concert began with a surprisingly vivacious rendition from the orchestra's winds, brass and percussion of Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man. Ben Zander rose to the podium, and amazed the audience with his zeal. However, the Boston Philharmonic, a half-professional, half-volunteer orchestra which is known for its romantic energy rather than its precision, was obviously not the reason why the audience attended. The audience was waiting for the two stars of the evening.

Yo-Yo Ma came on stage after the Copland piece to play the Morawetz Memorial to Martin Luther King. Zander explained that Oscar Morawetz, a modern Canadian composer, had written the piece for cello and orchestra because the power of the orchestra best expressed the emotion he felt while watching his television when Dr. King was assassinated, and the cello is the instrument the most like a wailing, sobbing, human voice.

The piece sent shivers up my back. The gunshot in the timpani was followed by a haunting, screaming turmoil, after which the cello emerged lamenting. Ma's face was filled with such anguish as he poured his feelings through his cello. The audience was silent as the cello sobbed its final shudder. Zander and Ma returned to the stage with Morawetz, who received a standing ovation.

The next piece was an "old standard" with a new twist, the Scherzo from Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, conducted by Bobby McFerrin. McFerrin was wonderful to watch wielding the baton. He had conducted only three performances before this one, and he did not use a score. He used very sharp movements, punching his fist at the timpani for their entrances or holding on to the baton with both hands, grinning infectiously the whole time.

His interpretation was very blocky and segmented, contrasting greatly with Zander's smooth emotion. Even so, it was tremendous to see him give all his pizzazz to the orchestra, which absorbed his energy and gave a gleeful performance. The piece culminated with an okay sign and a stomp on the podium directed at the orchestra, before McFerrin turned around to recognize the audience's applause.

Next on the program came McFerrin's works. He stood up on the podium and announced that he was writing, at that very moment, a concerto for cello and audience. He had the audience sing a tone and Ma would elaborate on top of it, then McFerrin would thrust his arms at the orchestra and have them make some sounds. He went on to have us howl whoops, echoed by the orchestra and Ma, and finally by himself. At one point, McFerrin would sing a tune, and Ma would imitate it, one beat behind, then they switched roles. Meanwhile the orchestra and audience were singing a harmony that McFerrin would charismatically throw out in between his solos. Everyone was laughing and singing by the end.

For their next act, McFerrin and Ma played a duet arrangement of Gounod's Ave Maria, a piece based on a Bach harpsichord sonata, with McFerrin singing free-form syllables. McFerrin's voice rolled over the arpeggios that Ma's cello danced upon, their two musical styles making an amazing mix of traditional chamber music with the free-floating hip style of jazz. They continued with a an arrangement of a cello duet, which McFerrin sang quite humorously, hitting the low notes with resonating growls and zipping through the runs and arpeggios. The audience was very relaxed by this point, laughing at McFerrin's impersonations of the cello, and his obvious enjoyment at the challenge.

After intermission, Ma played the Dvorak Cello Concerto. His lyrical interpretation intrigued the audience; his powerful performance gave the night a wonderful air. The audience clapped between each movement, which is generally not done but indicative of a happy crowd. Ma's proficiency on the cello made his performance an outpouring of many musical moods, from the quiet power of the solos to the tense relief of the end. Ma turned around during the third movement and looked at the winds as he played with them. He brought the whole orchestra together, became a focal point for their energies and gave a world-class performance worthy of the magical evening.

For an encore, Ma and Zander played cello and McFerrin sang in a trio that concluded the evening beautifully. Although Zander is no cellist, the ensemble of these three wonderful musicians left the audience loving music. Ma and McFerrin's total surrender to the beauty of music had swallowed everyone present, and let those present find a haven in their genius.