Review: Yo-Yo Ma & Richmond Symphony

Valentina Peleggi conducting
Oct. 4, Carpenter Theatre, Dominion Energy Center

Since the days of Franz Liszt and Niccolò Paganini, classical virtuoso-superstars generally have given audiences what they crave, with extra helpings of showmanship. For the past generation, Yo-Yo Ma has been a pre-eminent cello virtuoso and media-savvy superstar; but what he offers, in addition to masterful playing and a sunny personality, is respect for listeners’ comprehension and taste.

Performing with the Richmond Symphony to a capacity crowd, Ma played Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, one of the major concertos for the instrument but one that’s too somber and subtle to rank high on the list of crowd-pleasers. The piece requires intense concentration to play and to hear.

Ma did not succumb to any of the expressive temptations that this late-romantic work might present – no sighing or groaning in its dark main theme, no extra-crunchy double-stops, no rhetorical flourishes beyond those that Elgar scored. Where the composer wanted very quiet playing from the soloist, Ma played very quietly. And the audience, which greeted him and then rewarded his performance with roaring ovations, listened very quietly.

Charisma exercised at low volume is a rare gift.

This was Ma’s second appearance with the Richmond Symphony, and in both he played the Elgar concerto. My memory of his 1981 performance is hazy, to put it mildly; but I believe this one was more measured in pacing, more darkly lyrical, more atmospheric and more collaborative with the orchestra.

Valentina Peleggi, the symphony’s music director, kept the orchestra firmly on Ma’s wavelength, both interpretively and in collective sonority.

The sound of the symphony, especially its string sections, was quite different in the program’s first half. A more assertive, dynamic and at times angular sound was required in three of the selections, Maurice Ravel’s “La valse,” Manuel de Falla’s “The Three-Cornered Hat” Suite No. 2 and Gabriela Ortiz’s “Kauyumari,” all of which received surging, highly colorful performances.

Peleggi’s treatment of Johann Strauss II’s “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” was rather mannered, exaggerating the delayed beats and tempo fluctuations of traditional Viennese style, while lacking the plush string tone characteristic of that style.

The orchestra’s relatively lean string sound enhanced the colors and ominous atmospherics of “La valse” and contributed to the energy of the Falla suite, but rendered the fiddles barely audible through most of the Ortiz piece, a rhythmically propulsive, brassy and percussive dance inspired by the “blue deer” ceremony of the Huichol people of Mexico.