IN: Reviews

Dvorák Ecstasy and Bartok Mania at BSO


Yo Yo Ma with guest conductor Juanjo Mena (Stu-Rosner photo)

The talk in the lobbies during intermission at Symphony Hall Thursday, October 13, was all about a full house that spontaneously rose to its collective feet with an unbridled show of enthusiasm and appreciation. When, someone asked, was the last time that ever happened? Together, Yo-Yo Ma, Juanjo Mena and the Boston Symphony Orchestra rocketed the packed hall toward musical planets beyond most musical telescopes through the power of Dvorák’s remarkably astonishing Cello Concerto in B minor. Ecstatic might be the best way to convey the charged ovation from the sea of standing music lovers.

The 45-minute concerto was the complete focus of the opening half of this singular concert. No overtures or other shorter works prefaced the Dvorák as is usually the case with concerto programming. It is hard to believe that the Czech composer wrote his cello masterpiece in only a few months, for it is a magnificent vehicle of expression containing just about every technique that could challenge (velocity, myriad positions on the fingerboard, quadruple stops) and more (lyrical lines, memorable themes, juxtaposition of temperaments). The discovery—if not re-discovery—of this work was also a topic at intermission. It was as if Dvorák and Ma were destined to complement each other. Yo-Yo Ma possesses incomparable technique, at once natural and insightful, through which his generous gifts expose a beauty of the rarest kind. Ma deferred to Mena with Mena in turn deferring to Ma, both then seizing opportunities to defer to the orchestra.

Ma’s singing sound went straight to the heart when, head back, eyes closed, body tilted, he brought vividly to life the concerto’s outwardly simple yet inwardly potent melodies. In the tenderest of moments, orchestra soloists, conductor Mena, and cellist Ma would delicately suspend time through a rallentando, then come back together precisely on the beat. The uncanny communication necessary to pull this off so poignantly had the full house holding its collective breath.

As in the first half of the program, just one composition, Bartók’s The Wooden Prince, took up the hour after intermission. Many of Bartók’s compositions are commonly known, but not this one-act ballet, first performed in 1917. According to the BSO concert booklet “the first performance in the United States of any music from The Wooden Prince may have been the performance of October 25, 1968, when Eugene Ormandy led the Philadelphia Orchestra in a seventeen-minute suite from the full score. These are the first Boston Symphony Orchestra performances.”

It took some time to become immersed in the oddly maniacal, often strangely comical ballet about a prince falling in love. Cheers were slow to come, but then sure and steady following an utterly stunning performance from the orchestra under guest conductor Juanjo Mena who, at the behest of the enthralled concert-goers, summoned individual instrumentalists to stand. Wiping sweat from his brow, Mena himself took one final bow with a gesture that said “whew, I’m whipped!”

Dramatic tempo shifts contrasting with subtle rubato; ribbons of black notes, like centipedes in the written score, moving at nearly the speed of light; atmospheric textures and Hungarian-influenced dance rhythms; massive blocks of color and sound and bare single tones; all sorts of things inhabit the score—a nightmare in a worst-case scenario, a mind-blowing trip in a best-case scenario. Mena and the BSO deserve unreserved praise for pulling off a thrilling feat of orchestral mania.

In his first concert directing the BSO, Mena may very well have been much more than the proverbial dark horse in this season’s showcase of conductors as they search for someone to assume the helm. The Spaniard’s sheer physical size, coupled with his altogether alluring podium presence, did not escape the Thursday evening multitude. (At one point in his conducting did I see Mena assume a quasi-Flamenco pose?)

This concert brings good news to the many critics of BSO programming. The same program, not to be missed, will be repeated on Friday afternoon, Saturday and Tuesday evenings.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston, was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University.

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  1. It is interesting to debate the word “ecstatic”.  In my estimation Dvorák was not “ecstatic” but rather “thrilling”.  I did like the play of the concerto, in fact more than I expected, but it did not reach the ecstasy, at least in my head.

    The play of concerto was very smartly arranged. Yo-Yo Ma was at much softer side then I would like a cellist to be and BSO played the very same “mellow” version of the Dvorák work. Not that it was wrong, it is what they wanted apparently to do and it is a valid take. Nowadays I am looking more “hostile” read of the work and that overly-romantic euphoria and overly personal touch kind of “annoy” me.   But it is me and it would be my definition of ecstasy from this work. Still, from what Yo-Yo/BSO did, they did very nice, and the second movement, where softness is very much warranted, was truly spectacular and highly communicative.

    Juanjo Mena did left very pleasant impression, even thought I feel that the whole thing was set in place by Mr. Ma. What I find notable is that BSO players did pay very little attention to the conductor. I do not know Juanjo set BSO during rehearsal but during concert the BSO played pretty much itself. I am sure that they played the concerto zillion times and they can play the peace with reversed hands and sitting upside down but just for sake of politeness – can they pretend that they are being conducted and to humor a new guy?

    Comment by Romy the Cat — October 15, 2011 at 12:33 am

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