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Yo-Yo Ma captivates Symphony Hall with sincerity

Boston Symphony Orchestra
With Yo-Yo Ma.
Symphony Hall.
Feb. 18-20.

By Allison Marino
Staff Reporter

classical, with Joseph Haydn's Symphony 101; neo-romanticism, with Stephen Albert's Cello Concerto; and late romantic Czech nationalism, with Antonin Dvorak's Serenade for Strings. Symphony 101, nicknamed "The Clock" within a decade of its first performance, is one of Haydn's well-loved "London" symphonies. The Cello Concerto was finished only two years ago and marks the first BSO performance of any of Albert's works. Light and spirited, Serenade for Strings was composed in a surprising one and a half weeks, during a compositional torrent of Dvorak's in 1875. BSO assistant conductor Robert Spano led the orchestra for this blockbuster program because Seiji Ozawa was ill.

Composer Stephen Albert's recent and untimely death in December 1992 made Ma's performance of his Cello Concerto particularly poignant. Even though Ma's technical facility was undeniably awesome, the true life of the performance lay in his intensely sincere interpretation of Albert's Concerto. Whether the mood was harsh and rhythmic, lyrical and passionate, or frenetic with seemingly impossible tempo changes, the cello seemed an extension of Ma. He smoothly mastered neo-romanticist tonalities; the tonal focus was at times major, minor, chromatic, and even borrowed from the East. Albert composed the Cello Concerto specifically for Ma, often consulting with him to work out compositional blocks. Well-crafted and expressive, the concerto displayed Albert's unusual compositional talent and insight as Ma brought it to life. The loss of Stephen Albert's will definitely be felt in the musical community.

Preceded by the Haydn Symphony, Ma's performance was the highlight of the evening. Conductor Robert Spano stood completely still. Entranced, audience and orchestra members alike stared as Ma alone poured out the dramatic, shifting emotions portrayed in the third movement of the Concerto. Pensively, sadly, artfully, Ma developed the very personal, minor theme, with interludes of whirlwind runs and double stopping. Eventually, Spano and the orchestra rejoined Ma, and the character of the concerto changed. The fourth and final movement was intense, but more removed. When the virtuosic concerto was over, Spano and Ma embraced as the audience began its long and hearty applause.

Ma certainly stole the show, but Spano's keen conducting made Haydn's Symphony 101 and Dvorak's Serenade for Strings excellent icing for the cake. Spano seemed nervous and stiff for the opening allegro-presto of "The Clock," but he loosened up by the namesake movement, an andante with a "tick tock" accompaniment pervading it. The subdued fun in the repetitiveness mixed with a pleasant violin melody must have warmed Spano up, for he bounced up and down with the "tick tocking," leading the orchestra wittily and accurately through to the symphony's finale, a grand flourish in true late Haydn style.

Following "The Clock," Yo-Yo Ma's dramatic performance, and an intermission, the program concluded with Dvorak's Serenade for Strings. Spano handled the opening moderato with the perfect tempo, a bit slower than that of conductor Neville Marriner in his popular 1981 Philips recording of the piece, allowing the audience to relax and enjoy the sweetness of this movement. Spano's smooth transitions, his sensitive use of rubato (particularly in the vivace), and emotional but refined swells proved particularly rewarding.

This weekend, MIT's concert choir and chamber chorus director John Oliver will be conducting Beethoven's Missa Solemnis at Symphony Hall. The regular tickets were sold out long ago, but rush tickets can be had by those of you with free Fridays. They go on sale at 9:00 a.m. for the 2:00 p.m. concert. Don't miss this one!