by Janelle Gelfand
You could feel the electricity in Music Hall on Tuesday night, with all 3,417 seats filled for the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra’s gala concert with superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Cameras were stationed around the hall for a live feed to Fountain Square, Downtown, where hundreds more braved the cold spring evening to hear Paavo Järvi lead the orchestra and soloist in an all-Dvorak program.
The opening “Carnival” Overture set a celebratory tone for the evening, and Järvi’s brisk, robust reading elicited the first of many cheers. The outgoing music director, who concludes his 10th and final season this month, was proclaimed Music Director Laureate during the concert. And, in an evening of several standing ovations, the orchestra’s musicians received one, too, before they played a note of Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World,” which concluded the program.
And then there was Ma, arguably the world’s greatest cellist, who delivered an unforgettable performance of Dvorak’s Concerto in B Minor, his first performance with the Cincinnati Symphony since 1986. Later, he praised Music Hall’s acoustics, and pronounced the orchestra as “phenomenal.” Playing on Music Hall’s stage, he said, reminded him of Carnegie Hall – where he’ll be playing another gala concert in New York on Thursday.
Dvorak’s music is appealing for its wealth of Bohemian-inspired melodies and rhythms. His Concerto in B Minor may be partly influenced by America, where he was living when he wrote it in 1895, but not as much as his “New World” Symphony, composed two years earlier.Ma possesses the kind of electrifying artistry you feel lucky to witness, but he does not draw attention to himself. Rather, for Ma, it is all about the collaboration, about making music with his colleagues. So during the orchestra’s lengthy introduction -- almost a symphony itself -- he turned to enjoy the glowing solo by principal horn Elizabeth Freimuth. As tension built in the orchestra, he announced his presence by digging into his strings with even more intensity, infusing every note with emotion, with his head thrown back.
The result was as spontaneous as if he were playing chamber music with friends. Ma carried on a spirited and impassioned dialogue, often turning to communicate with soloists in the orchestra, such as principal flutist Randolph Bowman or concertmaster Timothy Lees. The tone he projected from his Stradivarius in the slow movement was almost vocal at times, and his phrasing was nuanced and deeply personal.
In the finale, the cellist could let sparks fly, then pull back to turn a lyrical phrase with enormous beauty, clearly enjoying the experience. He lingered on his final phrase, letting it die wistfully in the most breathtaking ending I’ve ever heard. The orchestra’s tutti passages were a joy to behold. Järvi made an excellent partner in their first collaboration together. It was, to quote a concertgoer, “a dream team.”
The audience barely moved a muscle, and then erupted in cheers until the cellist provided a radiant encore: J.S. Bach’s Bourée No. 1 and 2 from Suite No. 1.
After intermission, Järvi led the kind of performance of Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony that has marked his tenure here for the past decade: galvanizing, spontaneous, and richly imaginative.
At the heart of the symphony was an extraordinary Largo, enhanced by the gentle beauty of Christopher Philpott’s English horn. It was the orchestra’s turn to star, and the musicians responded with terrific playing.