Yo-Yo Ma In Great Form For Full House At TSO Gala

Yo-Yo Ma, Gustavo Gimeno and the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Photo: Jag Gundu)

Morawetz: Carnival Overture; Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story; George Paul / Jeremy Dutcher, arr. Owen Pallett: Honour Song; Dvořák: Cello Concerto. Toronto Symphony Orchestra, Gustavo Gimeno conducting; Yo-Yo Ma, cello, Jeremy Dutcher, vocalist, Sarah Prosper, dancer. November 16, 2022, Roy Thomson Hall, Toronto.

Nice to see the choir loft full Wednesday evening in Roy Thomson Hall. This Toronto Symphony Orchestra concert was well and truly sold out, at gala prices. Which might lead one to wonder whether Taylor Swift was the guest artist. Or Yo-Yo Ma.

The American cellist has made more than 50 appearances as a concerto soloist or recitalist under the auspices of the TSO since his debut with the orchestra in 1979 with Victor Feldbrill conducting. He has lost neither his stage charisma nor his capacity to make a standard sound fresh.

A full house at the TSO Gala (Photo: Jag Gundu)
A full house at the TSO Gala (Photo: Jag Gundu)

On this occasion, the main item after intermission was as standard as it could be: Dvorak’s Cello Concerto. The performance seemed, paradoxically, both spontaneous and full of wisdom. Ma has a remarkable way of projecting his intimate thoughts (and soft tone) to the rafters.

Or is the magic more about enticing the listener to join him on stage? At any rate, the great second theme of the first movement was as tender as it could be. Give-and-take with the woodwinds (principals, and very much on form) in the Adagio ma non troppo sounded like the reminiscences of old friends. Even the feisty finale impressed us less with fingerwork than with the introspection of the coda.

There were many subtle tempo shifts, smartly overseen by Gustavo Gimeno, who gives every indication of being a conductor who takes the job of accompaniment seriously. Indeed, the performance came off almost as a symphony. Perhaps Ma went overboard with his athletic cheerleading on behalf of the orchestra, but the gesture was not misplaced.

Jeremy Dutcher and Sarah Prosper with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Photo: Jag Gundu)
Jeremy Dutcher and Sarah Prosper with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (Photo: Jag Gundu)

There was another soloist, the Juno-winning vocalist Jeremy Dutcher, draped in a dramatic cape and in full voice for Honour Song, a traditional Mi’kmaq chant here presented in a version jointly attributed to composer George Paul, arranger Dutcher and orchestrator Owen Pallett. Ma got the piece started, but soon became part of the fabric, which included some engaging entries by the lower brass.

Discussions of classical adaptations of Indigenous source material can become quite fraught, but I think it is safe to say that the application of orchestral colour in this case was a positive thing. The audience loved it.

They approved also of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, a suite full of zesty syncopation and brash sonorities. A percussionist by training, Gimeno does not hold back the rearguard in this kind of music. There was plenty of vitality also in Oskar Morawetz’s Carnival Overture. Perhaps it is time to look for other Canadian openers.

The evening started with an unannounced solo by Dutcher, who was accompanied by a dancer, Sarah Prosper. This was a Celebrate 100 affair with a dinner before and a reception after. Musicians wore carnations. Unable to quell the clapping after Dvořák, Ma commandeered TSO principal Joseph Johnson’s cello and played The Song of the Birds, a Catalan lullaby associated with Pablo Casals. It was a marvel of quiet beauty.

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