Arts & Events

An Underwhelming Opening Night at San Francisco Symphony

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday September 15, 2017 - 10:54:00 AM

In a recent conversation at Berkeley’s hub of classical music, The Musical Offering on Bancroft Street, the name Yo-Yo Ma came up. The knowledgeable folks at The Musical Offering treated Yo-Yo Ma with undisguised scorn, dismissing him as the kind of big-name musician that impresarios bring in to show off to the big-money donors. These latter get to have a patrons’ dinner with Mr. Ma before or after the cellist goes through the motions in some familiar warhorse or, as is frequently the case, in some totally unfamiliar music from the far corners of the globe. The scuttlebutt at The Musical Offering was that Yo-Yo Ma has become the self-styled musical emissary to the world, and as such he is the big-money donors’ darling. But if you want emotional intensity and depth of musical interpretation, you don’t turn to Yo-Yo Ma.  

All this came to mind as I sat in Davies Hall Thursday evening, September 14, and listened to the San Francisco Symphony’s Opening Night Gala Concert featuring Yo-Yo Ma. On the program were the Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor by Camille Saint-Saens and Piotr Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme. These works featuring the cello were bookended by two pieces of dross, The Overture to Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, and, to close the evening, Maurice Ravel’s bombastic Bolero. We can deal with the bookends in short order. Bernstein’s Candide Overture was its usual brassy, bumptious self, a product of Bernstein’s Broadway years. Bernstein is a particular favorite of Michael Tilson Thomas, who announced from the stage that 2018 will be the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth and the Symphony will honor Bernstein by playing much of his music this season. If you like that sort of thing you’re happy. If not, you’re forewarned. As for Ravel’s Bolero, I didn’t stay to hear it close out the evening’s program with its all too familiar and all too bombastic repetitions. 

So, let us turn to what should have been the meat of this Opening Night concert – the two works featuring Yo-Yo Ma as solo cellist. If meat there was, it was a thin repast. The Saint-Saens Cello Concerto No. 1 is a conservative, backward-looking work. Composed in 1872 when Saint-Saens was 37 years old, the work was applauded by a Parisian reviewer for retreating from “the tendencies in a number of his recent works”-- by which he means modernist inclinations. In short, this cello concerto, actually a concertstück with three short movements played without a pause, looks back beyond Romanticism to Classicism. As such, it is a modestly ingratiating work, and modest indeed were the pleasures heard in Yo-Yo Ma’s diffident rendition of this cello concerto. In fact, this work’s most noteworthy feature, at least in this performance, was the weight assigned by Saint-Saens to the orchestra, which is far more than a mere accompanist to the solo cello. I would even venture to say that conductor Michael Tilson Thomas brought out more of the richness of this work’s orchestral score than Yo-Yo Ma brought out of the score for cello. Superb technician that he is, however, Yo-Yo Ma stays on the surface of this music, never probing deeply or imbuing his playing with intensity, preferring surface charm to emotional depth.  

After intermission, Yo-Yo Ma returned to play the solo cello part in Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme. This is a slight work, only 18 minutes in length, and it is one that gave Tchaikovsky great difficulty in composition. In fact, he sent the piece to his friend Wilhelm Karl Friedrich Fitzenhagen, then principal cellist of the Orchestra of the Imperial Russian Music Society in Moscow. Asked by Tchaikovsky for suggestions, Fitzenhagen simply made so many wholesale alterations that many musicologists argue he should be named as co-composer with Tchaikovsky. In any case, Yo-Yo Ma played the Fitzenhagen version, as do most but not all cellists, and here too, as in the Saint-Saens Cello Concerto heard earlier, Yo-Yo Ma gave a technically impeccable performance redolent of surface charm but devoid of any of the excitement one hears, for example, in Mstislav Rostropovich’s recording of this work with the Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan. If I had to find one word to characterize Yo-Yo Ma’s playing, of not just the works heard in this concert but of nearly everything, that one word would be ‘underwhelming’. If this Opening Night Gala Concert of the 2017-18 San Francisco Symphony season was supposed to be a blockbuster event, all I can say is, it was … underwhelming.