Review: Yo-Yo Ma reaches height of artistry at MSO concert

Mei-Ann Chen
The Commercial Appeal

By Jon W. Sparks

It's rare for the Memphis Symphony Orchestra to hold a Monday evening concert. But if the guest artist is Yo-Yo Ma, you'd expect they'd do pretty much anything to get him on stage.

He is, after all, a classical music superstar, extraordinarily gifted and guaranteed to bring in the crowds. And Monday night's performance at the Cannon Performing Arts Center proved it beyond any doubt.

The centerpiece was Ma's performance of Dvorak's Cello Concerto in B Minor, an exquisite work of longing and sadness first performed in 1896.

What Ma does is the height of artistry, to absorb the work so fully that the expression of it reaches beyond the senses and cuts to the listener's emotional core. When the cello's final heartbreaking note tears through the air bearing a lifetime of love and agony, the listener is electrified by its ineffable bittersweetness. Ma's complex, thrilling delivery of that note — and of every note in the piece — was well beyond technical excellence.

The orchestra, led by Maestro Mei-Ann Chen, was a beautiful partner in this artistry. Solos by various members of the MSO, including guest concertmaster Charles Morey, rounded out the performance. It is a delight to watch as Ma listens intently to the music, beams at the players and coaxes unparalleled sounds from his instrument.

The audience simply exploded when the piece was over. MSO crowds are always friendly, but Ma and Chen were called back repeatedly and with enthusiasm. When it had settled a bit, an encore was presented that got the auditorium fired up again.

Ma played "The Swan" from Saint-Saëns' "Carnival of the Animals" with a dance accompaniment by T.J. Benson of the New Ballet Ensemble. The young man did an interpretation similar to that of another New Ballet alumnus, Charles 'Lil Buck' Riley. Ma and Lil Buck have partnered on the piece several times and a YouTube video by director Spike Jonze has swept the Internet.

Lil Buck's mix of ballet and jookin' clearly influenced Benson's performance, a gorgeous example of fluid elegance — and again, the house stood and cheered.

Ten members of New Ballet performed in the first half of the evening to Brahms' Hungarian Dance No. 5 in G Minor. It, too, was a mix of styles, with girls doing classical moves in tutus and boys delivering urban stylings that made for an effective blend.

Richard Strauss' "Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks" ended the first half with a vigorous palate cleanser that set the stage for Ma and his sublime performance.