Listening wasn't enough. You had to be there to take it all in.
As one of the world's leading musicians, cellist Yo-Yo Ma is renowned for his compelling tone, masterful technique, and convincing musical storytelling. But on May 14 at the Adler Theatre with the Quad City Symphony, he demonstrated a key element that could only be experienced in the live performance: body language.
The special centennial-season concert was unparalleled for its depth of expression, precision playing, and warm sensitivity, especially in the second-half performance of Antonín Dvo?ák's Concerto in B Minor for Cello & Orchestra with Ma. And when the spotlight shone on the Quad City Sympony in the first half, the orchestra flexed its considerable dynamic and melodic muscles in no-holds-barred performances of Johannes Brahms' Academic Festival Overture and Pyotr Tchaikovsky's tuneful Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture, creating stark moments of volcanic intensity and radiant melodic shaping.
In Dvo?ák, Ma's formidable artistic tools were on display, yet his movements and expressions conveyed performance information and evaluative thoughts in an ongoing musical and visual dialogue with Music Director and Conductor Mark Russell Smith and the other players. Ma swayed in his chair, hunched over his cello, bobbed his head, watched the orchestra, and smiled. He performed some subtle conducting gestures at special moments.
To an ensemble such as the Quad City Symphony - which is hyper-responsive to a conductor's physical cues - Ma's movements were instructive for rhythm and musical characterizations, but they also represented encouragement and enthusiasm that propelled the orchestra's efforts and helped unify its performance. Even when the orchestra was playing without Ma, he was physically engaged in what they were doing by watching, listening, and moving with the players.
Throughout, there was always a sense of evenness, a balance of tone color moving forward with the energy always in the musical line. Ma's core sound was unfailingly prominent, singing, even in the contrasts between the majestic "risoluto" of the first theme in the first movement, the lovely, simple song of the second, and the march-like "Finale."
His mastery of technical challenges was impressive, playing complicated arpeggiated figures with his bow skipping across the strings, fast chromatic passages in octaves, and quadruple stops (using all four strings simultaneously) - all while watching the orchestra's performance with a grin. He rolled his head to the side and looked back to follow the migration of melodic fragments around the orchestra.
Ma's musical storytelling was exemplary. Variations in musical nuances - articulations and tone color - brought his sound characterizations to life by making each individual idea musically specific. The subtle accents in the last movement gave the theme a martial feel, while the light whispering at the tip of the bow in the second was prayer-like. In the coda, when previous themes returned, Ma recaptured their musical identity one by one.
He intensified the drama of his story by putting pressure on the tempo, playing slightly ahead of the orchestra at times and keeping the pace of the concerto moving ever-forward. Even when the music was slow, either by tempo indication or dramatic inflection, the flow of energy was constant, leaving no time to rest or relax. Contrasting sections in the first movement seemed to bring the music to a stop - but not quite: Ma was lingering on the note to extend a dramatic moment, not to end the musical flow.
In some passages, his dynamic softness was nearly inaudible to draw the audience into the musical intimacy - in the recap of the second theme in the first movement, his cadenza in the second movement, and especially the coda in the "Finale."
Smith skillfully managed the challenges of merging Ma's performance with the Quad City Symphony's, allowing the give-and-take elasticity needed in the complex interplay - with the orchestra suddenly taking the reins with bold, exuberant playing in one moment and then whispering in the next. This made the unmarked changes to Dvo?ák's score - some traditionally observed, others unique to the soloist - seamless.
The orchestra's opening exposition was a clear and powerful musical statement, vibrating with Dvo?ák's Czech verve at its best - with crisply enunciated musical characterizations between the tutti, moody Bohemian first theme and a gently played dulcet second theme in a solo horn, with soft strings hovering in the background.
The beautiful color of the clarinet duet in the second movement and the horn section's smooth presentation of the first theme just before Ma's cadenza were outstanding. The clarinet and bassoon trio with Ma's second theme of the last movement was supple chamber music, with the cellist leaning back to hear and play with them.
All of these elements and many more created a captivating atmosphere of immediacy, a sense that what was happening was essential, without randomness - doing what Leonard Bernstein called "naming the unnameable and communicating the unknowable."
Although Yo-Yo Ma was the main attraction, the Quad City Symphony also forcefully commanded its own spotlight during the first half of the concert. From the taut intensity of the opening of Brahms to the frenetic, soaring melodic sequences in Tchaikovsky, the orchestra's performance was electric and alive, a dazzling contrast of opposites - bold and sensitive, edgy and frothy, shattering and pillowy.
Smith's sturdy tempo in Brahms brought a sense of anticipation and tension into the string sound. It suited the orchestra by making the overlapping musical illusions between the winds and strings clearly discernible. Tuneful phrases in the strings could be robust, flowing smoothly from one to another.
The orchestra's tone color was uniform and purposeful whether playing an important tune or accompanying it. The inner parts with the violas, cellos, basses, and second violins brought a vitality, richness, and momentum to the melody in the first violins.
The emphatic cross-rhythm accents between the strings, brass, and winds intensified the tempo's momentum, setting up the sudden change of texture with the stratified chorale at the end. Tone color and dynamics in Brahms' thematic exchanges between the clarinet, oboe, and flute flowed evenly without disparity in timbre or intensity.
Unlike most conductors, who want to get into the drama of Tchaikovsky's Romeo & Juliet immediately by overplaying the dynamics and accents at the beginning, Smith's opening was peaceful - even gentle - with only a hint of the tragedy to come. This softer approach allowed for a longer, more consistent change of character beginning with the cello section and ending in the "fight" scene.
The "love" theme presented by the violas and English horn was sumptuous, elegant, and well-shaped.
Smith's choice of tempo for the "fight" scenes allowed the string players to bear into their strings and the brass to fill the notes fully, giving the musical drama more edge. The last few bars, which the orchestra played in rhythmic unison, were powerful in large part because of Smith's clear indications for attack and release.
Although the burst of applause that greeted the end of the concert clearly represented appreciation for Ma's performance and presence, the orchestra itself had earned it, too. Traditional stage decorum joyfully disintegrated into open expressions of the expansive personal charisma of both Yo-Yo Ma and Mark Russell Smith. The two musicians embraced each other in celebration, and then one by one several members of the orchestra. Ma threw the orchestra a kiss, gave the audience a celebratory thumbs-up, and then tossed his bouquet into the audience as a souvenir.
Ma then performed an encore - a moment to reflect on the relevance of the evening - playing unaccompanied Bach for the sold-out theatre with more than 2,500 people quietly listening. It was a historic evening - a demonstration of Ma's world-class artistry, of the Quad City Symphony at its best, and of the community's passion for great music.
Frederick Morden is a retired orchestra-music director, conductor, composer, arranger, educator, and writer who has served on the executive board of the Conductors Guild. He can be reached at email@example.com.