The moon looked full Wednesday night, and Kleinhans Music Hall was brimming with nervous energy.
It was the gala opening of the season, and Yo-Yo Ma was in the house. The concert, conducted by Music Director JoAnn Falletta, packed the place to the rafters. From the start, there was a sense of suspense. And the evening delivered.
There is something affecting about Yo-Yo Ma. Even though he’s 57, almost 58, he’s eternally youthful. It might have something to do with the range of music he plays, everything from Appalachian folk music with fiddler Mark O’Connor to East/West fusion music with Asian musicians. Wednesday night he was playing a contemporary piece, “Azul,” by Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov.
He walked out beforehand without his cello, cracking jokes. For such a big star, he is remarkably un-star-like. He explained to us the music we were about to hear, about how it traced the history of the universe, from the beginnings of life through frogs on up to the advent of man.
You have to love him. By the time he exited, and returned with his cello, everyone was dying to hear this piece. We are beating the New York Philharmonic to it, by the way. They are hearing him play it next Wednesday, for their season-opening gala.
Readied for “Azul,” Kleinhans looked as if it were prepared for a vaudeville act. There was a small piano off to one side, and an array of percussion, including a big drum. Meanwhile, the cellos and violins were arranged in front of the back wall. Concertmaster Michael Ludwig was sitting in front of Principal Cellist Roman Mekinulov, just to show how scrambled things were. The piece began in an arresting fashion, with a kind of subterranean trembling, and the cello entered with a suspenseful figure, with long, questioning tones, like a low-voiced bird. Then the enhanced accordion entered, echoing the cello with a soft cafe sound. Their lines interwove. It was lovely to listen to.
A burst of percussion ushered in the next section. Yo-Yo Ma was playing without a score, and so, it seemed, were the percussionists. Probably the percussionists could do what they wanted, and no one would know the difference, but their interplay with the cello was effective. The piece held your attention.
Largely abstract, the piece did not do justice to Yo-Yo Ma’s gifts, nor give much idea of what makes him great. It did, however, show his energy, and his commitment, which are part of his appeal. He dug into the cello with gusto, sometimes half rising from his seat, twisting around. In one interlude, all the strings’ bows were sawing away crazily, all in different directions. Here was a clear picture of chaos.
Much of “Azul” is ingenious. You admire Golijov’s originality and intent. The harmonies, the trills in the woodwinds, could be beautiful. There were admirable imitations of frogs and insects. When the piece ended, it was as if it deflated like a balloon, into a sigh. Yo-Yo Ma’s bow was dancing almost noiselessly over the strings of his cello.
Yo-Yo Ma rewarded the applause with numerous bows. Then came a surprise. Someone handed Falletta a guitar. The crowd went wild, then fell silent as she accompanied Ma in Heitor Villa-Lobos’ Bachianas Brasileiras, No. 5. She played a simple accompaniment, and sounded rather shy, but it was fun to hear her play, and she did well. We got a good glimpse of the enchanting tone Yo-Yo Ma is known for, an irresistible, effortless lyricism. He followed that piece up with a solo, identified as Pablo Casals’ “Song of the Birds.”