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Certain Joyful Cellist Wows Tanglewood


Despite bottlenecked traffic Sunday, enormous crowds came to Tanglewood to see and hear Yo-Yo Ma play with the BSO in an all-Tchaikovsky program conducted by David Zinman. People were still scurrying to their seats when the announcement came that the concert would be postponed for 20 minutes or so—even musicians were stuck in the monumental crush of cars.

The opener, Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, marched along cheerfully, and the orchestra played it beautifully. This piece is meant to reflect the sophisticated, celebratory atmosphere of high society, but on its own, it reminds one more of the Carmen overture, sans those dramatic foreshadowings.

Entering with affection and amiability, Ma began with the Andante Cantabile for Cello and Strings. Originally the second movement of a string quartet based on a Russian folksong, the adagio-like lullaby of simple, solemn pianissimos provided a prayerful refuge, his pure sweetness of tone mesmerized everyone; what was even more impressive was how he made the instrument sing at such a remarkably hushed level that it silenced the entire shed.

A certain joyful cellist (Hilary Scott photo)
A certain joyful cellist (Hilary Scott photo)

Having drawn everyone in, Ma proceeded to the Variations on a Rococo Theme. His virtuosity was in stirring form Sunday afternoon. Even so, a cynic might scoff at the crowds who came to see the brand name—until exposed to those charismatic, heart-melting charms. Onstage, Yo-Yo Ma himself is an instrument of pure joy, his cello merely an extension for expressing it.

It was within that context that this reviewer suddenly got the impression that the theme and variations enacted a child’s game, the theme the child’s yard and the variations his or her antics in it, running to and fro. Jumping, laughing, marching, sneaking up, creeping along, dancing and engaging in coquettishness, with the orchestra like loving parents supporting the warmhearted play. Tchaikovsky wrote the work as a gift for a cellist who supposedly ran off with it like a shiny new toy. Letters ensued about how terrible it was that Wilhelm Fitzenhagen was doodling all over it, taking liberty with cadenzas, fiddling with the form. But apparently Tchaikovsky didn’t mind. In the hands of a master as seasoned and as ecstatic as Ma, Variations on a Rococo Theme remains a beloved work..

The afternoon concluded with Symphony No. 6, Pathétique, Tchaikovsky’s last work; he died nine days after leading its 1893 premiere. A monumental piece, it is less repetitive than the Fourth Symphony, but under Zinman somehow less distinctive in sonorities. The BSO was reined in for most of the work with tasteful subtlety, the popular romantic theme reserved with a beauty that wasn’t overly swelled. Waves of lyricism were sufficiently built up in all the correct places, though the sound felt somewhat dynamically homogenized. With the triumphant final measures of the Allegro molto vivace, the audience thought the concert was over and began to clap.

They settled down after being hit with the astonishingly inspired interpretation of the final movement (Adagio lamentoso –Andante), and magic finally happened. Somehow that corporeal sense of rich harmony that was missing earlier hit everyone as a wall of sound, full of the most wrenching harmonic suspensions and dissonances, delivered as a gasp from a dying man collecting himself just enough to depart with ta final, profound statement. Never has this reviewer appreciated Tchaikovsky more than in this moment—the final movement of his final composition.

Janine Wanée holds a BM from USC, an MM from BU, and certificates from the BU Opera Institute and summer Acting Shakespeare course at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.


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  1. Great concert! Only problem was the enormous traffic jam.
    BTW I had tickets from a website that the box office said was a fraud. They replaced them with real seats, at no charge. I could not believe it.

    Comment by Dick Michalak — August 17, 2014 at 10:57 am

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