ASO: Robert Spano with Yo-Yo Ma

This evening’s special concert of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with cellist Yo-Yo Ma was very good. It could have been great, though. I sometimes suspect that the ASO doesn’t really take anything seriously that was composed from the Classical Period to WWII if it didn’t come from somewhere between the German states and the Russian Empire. It’s almost like they want to say that all serious music of that period was confined to some pale of settlement that stretched between the Rhine and Volga rivers. This concert reinforced that suspicion.

It’s not that it was poorly performed so much as it felt to me like Spano didn’t put terribly much effort into interpreting the works. It’s not so much that the performances were overly technical – and they weren’t sloppy in the least – but they were kind of dry. The three of the five works on the program that didn’t feature Ma included two suites of incidental music by Bizet – the first L’Arlésienne and Carmen suites – and Spano didn’t make them speak to me at all. I just felt that there was a lot more to those two works than the catchy melodies that he brought out of them.

Spano did better with Dukas’ tone poem L’apprenti sorcier. It’s no more a deep piece of work than the Goethe poem on which it was based, which is probably why he did so well with it, but at the same time he deserves credit for resisting the temptation to slack off and just get by on the natural charm and energy of the piece, especially considering the audience’s familiarity with it.

The two pieces of music that featured Ma’s cello were Fauré’s Élégie and Saint-Saëns’ Concerto for Cello and Orchestra No. 1. Ma was excellent in both. Although I think that Spano could have brought more out of the pieces, he totally nailed the dynamics. It was genuinely impressive how well the orchestra and the cello worked together on both pieces. Certainly some credit goes to the orchestration by the composers, but Spano and Ma really made the sounds meld incredibly well. I was so taken with it that I nearly forgot to applaud the Fauré.

Ma ended the concert with a beautiful performance of Pau Casals’ transcription of the Catalan Christmas song El cant dels ocells. It was a little odd how he introduced it, though. He brought up that we were listening to an all French program on Cinco de Mayo and said something about birds representing freedom as they see no borders as they fly through the air. I’m not sure what freedom has to do with the song, which is a series of verses about different birds celebrating the birth of Jesus, and Catalonia certainly has nothing to do with the Mexican triumph against the French in the Battle of Puebla. Perhaps he was supporting the Catalan independence movement? Or maybe he was excusing the incongruity of playing a Catalan Christmas tune as an encore to a French program on Cinco de Mayo? More likely, he just wanted to play gorgeous music for us and to do so incredibly well. If that was his intent then he most certainly succeeded.

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