Yo-Yo Ma returns as Strauss’s knight errant with MTT, New World Symphony

By David Fleshler

Yo-Yo Ma performed Strauss's "Don Quixote" with Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony Saturday night at the Arsht Center. Photo: SIggi Bachmann

Yo-Yo Ma performed Strauss’s “Don Quixote” with Michael Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony Saturday night at the Arsht Center. Photo: SIggi Bachmann¬†

Miami has experienced enough hurricanes that a mere tropical storm wasn’t going to keep many people from a performance by the star cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

They came to the Arsht Center expecting to be blown away by Ma’s playing, not by Tropical Storm Philippe, and the cellist’s performance of Strauss’s¬†Don Quixote with the New World Symphony generated one of the longest ovations in recent memory.

Organized as a theme and variations, the work depicts the delusional old Spanish nobleman of the Cervantes novel, who attempts to become a knightly hero in an era of faded chivalric ideals. Although it’s sometimes called a de facto cello concerto, Strauss’ work really doesn’t feel like one in tone or structure. It’s a programmatic, often highly literal work, as one of music’s master orchestrators generates effects that depict bleating sheep, howling wind and the disintegration of the old man’s mind under the intoxicating influence of knightly tales.

Ma gave a theatrical performance that made the cello an actor in the drama. He hammed it up with exaggerated slides down the strings to emphasize the slapstick humor of the Don’s pratfalls. He brought the bow down in a pointedly aggressive manner as the would-be knight charged windmills and flocks of sheep. At the end, as the Don’s sanity returns, he played the last melody in the faded, elegiac manner of man contemplating his end.

Less apparent in this performance was the knightly side of the Don’s character, a real part of the work. There were times that a big, golden cello sound seemed called for, and Ma delivered a thin, reedy tone that sounded more like the delusional old man that Don Quixote was, rather than the knight he aspired to be. And there were times when he played so softly that he could barely be heard over the orchestra. In the first variation, for example, the cello plays a bumptious passage in triplets that gradually becomes lyrical and impassioned, as the orchestra joins in with a soaring theme in violins, but the cello’s essential contribution was almost inaudible.

The work has a big viola part as well, depicting the Don’s sidekick, Sancho Panza. Jonathan Vinocour, principal viola of the San Francisco Symphony, gave the part a sturdy, earthy performance.

Under music director Michael Tilson Thomas, the orchestra delivered a colorful, virtuoso account of a work that makes major demands on the orchestra. The swirling themes of the introduction effectively depicted the Don’s developing madness. Muted brass crackled with a sound so characteristic of Strauss’s music. Oboes persuasively portrayed his lady Dulcinea and peasant girls. And brass memorably depicted the bleating sheep that the Don mistakes for an approaching army.

The concert opened with Schubert’s Rosamunde Overture, led by conducting fellow Dean Whiteside. After a solemn introduction, played with great sonority, the orchestra launched into the jaunty themes that have kept alive this incidental music to a forgotten Viennese play. Strings played with a precision that was never fussy, bringing out the exuberance of the main theme. Soft, rustling passages burbled with energy and retained their clarity in passages that could become murky in the hands of lesser performers.

Tilson Thomas led a restrained, transparent performance of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 4, known as the “Italian” symphony.

The opening theme, often played with blaring extroversion, came off as graceful and high-spirited. The movement was played with a transparency that allowed all voices to be heard, even in intricate fugal passages, but without a trace of chaos. The celebratory feeling of Mendelssohn in this mood came through, without the brassy tone that attends some interpretations.

After displaying similar restraint in the inner movements, Tilson Thomas opened up the orchestra for the whirling dances of the last movement. The saltarello and tarantella melodies raced from section to section, never losing momentum or clarity, bringing the work to a lively close.

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Sun Oct 29, 2017
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