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Yo-Yo Ma joins MTT, SF Symphony at festive 2017 gala

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Cello great Yo-Yo Ma, center, helped San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas and the orchestra open the 2017-18 season with a bang. (Courtesy Devlin Shand/Drew Altizer Photography)
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On Thursday at Davies Symphony Hall at the gala opening of San Francisco Symphony’s 106th season, music director Michael Tilson Thomas apologized for the week-later-than-typical start; he was out of town conducting the Vienna Philharmonic at the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland.

However, the concert, a feast of strings showcasing cello superstar Yo-Yo Ma, certainly was worth the wait.

During the center of the festive program, the impeccable Ma played two thoroughly dynamic classics of the cello repertoire: Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto No. 1 and Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme.

Seemingly channeling the music, Ma is not only a master, he’s fun to watch.

His grin seemed to be contagious; his fellow string players often smiled along, and throughout allegro sections of the concerto in particular, his face registered feelings of wonder, satisfaction, fulfillment and joy.

During intense passages, he seemed to be stoking a fire or stirring a pot — quite a contrast to low, slow quiet moments, and, notably, dramatic pauses in the Tchaikovsky piece.

The concert’s final number was Ravel’s ubiquitous, mesmerizing “Boléro” — repetition can be a good thing! — with notable solos by Tim Day, flute; Carey Bell, clarinet; Steve Paulson, bassoon; David Neuman, e-flat clarinet; Russ deLuna, oboe d’amore; Raymond Riccomini, trumpet; David Henderson, soprano saxophone and Patrick Posey, soprano saxophone. Jacob Nissly, the source of the constant rhythm on snare drum, deservedly got a huge round of applause.

The evening’s surprise was a new work for longtime patron and benefactor Bernard Osher on his belated 90th birthday. MTT, who wrote the “The 17th Century Birthday” salute — which used a very familiar tune as its basis, charmingly sang it to Osher in his box seat, while resident conductor Christian Reif led the band.

The show began with the Overture to Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide,” written for an initially unsuccessful 1956 musical based on Voltaire’s classic satire. Veering from twinkling to animated to majestic and booming, the appealing piece served as an ideal introduction to the season’s upcoming focus on the American composer (and MTT’s friend Lenny) on the centennial of his birth.
Equally rousing was the kickoff sing-along rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” an opening-night tradition.

Not only did it sound great, it refreshingly was the only political element in an evening celebrating the communal power of music.

Afterward, the glammed-up crowd partied to pop bands on Grove Street and an adjacent tent, where spirits flowed freely and snacks (a bit heavy on ice cream and meatballs) were served.

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