ALBANY — Sure, it’s only the second week of January, but Saturday night’s Albany Symphony Orchestra performance with Yo-Yo Ma may go down as the concert of the year.
What the sold-out crowd of 2,851 witnessed at the Palace Theatre was a magical combination of “the world’s greatest concert musician,” according to conductor David Alan Miller, and a hometown symphony that continues to be on fire. Over the course of four diverse pieces, audiences were given top-notch musicianship replete with lusty playing by both soloist and orchestra, especially in the three movements and 40 minutes of Antonin Dvorak’s of the immensely crowd-pleasing Cello Concerto in B minor, Op. 104, B. 191.
Ma, as usual, worked his cello with expressive pleasure. With eyes shut and head tilted back one moment, he’d suddenly lean forward the next and rock his head with such force he’d send his short, hardly head-banging locks flying. That happened during the first movement, when Ma’s fingers moved with assured fluidity as he repeated the concerto’s major theme in many octaves.
Some of the richest musical moments of the Dvorak occurred when Ma’s played in juxtaposition with another musician. The second movement includes a quiet moment in which Ma alone plays for a few measures until the flute enters, subtly and sweetly played by Floyd Hebert. The quiet counterpoint allowed for a contemplative moment before the rest of the orchestra joined in.
Likewise, the third movement contained a lively contrapuntal contest between Ma and the concertmaster Jill Levy. This time, the ever-emotive Ma turned his head toward Levy as if to challenge her by staring her down. Moments like those allow Ma’s humanity to shine through the music.
The audience seemed to feel it, too, and responded with a standing ovation that lasted a solid five moments after the big finish of the Dvorak.
The other moment of big applause occurred for a young composer named Clint Needham, whose nine-minute “Everyday Life” had its world premiere at the beginning of Saturday’s program. In a pre-concert speech from the stage, Needham, who was born in 1981, said the piece was inspired by his twin 3-year-old boys and 1-year-old daughter. His piece was a Pixar-like pastiche of beautiful, string-filled cinematic passages interrupted by percussive jolts and then full-orchestra frenetic playing, which helped to build the tension.
The piece was fun, but it didn’t hold together as well as the piece that followed it, which was by a true cinematic master, John William’s “Elegy” for Cello and Orchestra. In that piece, Ma displayed true power in quietness, with a gentle line played over a hushed, and sometimes silent, strings.
Also on the program was the wonderfully varied Johannes Brahms work Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56. After the stately beat and Baroque-like geometerey of the theme, the variations open into a wider realm of music history, with the gentle beauty of the Classical period, the sweeping power of the Romantics and the lyrical turns to dance-like brightness. Throughout it all, the ASO got to show its stuff.
So kudos must go to Miller for the excellent program. Kudos, too, are deserved for the Capital Region audience, which came out in force to honor and experience moments in which both old and new music were brought to life.
Albany Symphony Orchestra
With Yo-Yo Ma, cello
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Palace Theatre, 19 Clinton Ave., Albany
Crowd: Sold out, with a wide variety of ages
Length: Two hours, with one intermission