The Many Excellences of Yo-Yo Ma

Photo by Stephen Danelian
Infinite Variety

Even if he weren’t one of the finest performers on his chosen instrument anywhere in today’s musical world, Yo-Yo Ma would stand apart. Fame rests upon his shoulders as a benevolent aura. His recent appearance at the Hollywood Bowl, not so much at the head of his Silk Road Ensemble but in its midst, drew a sellout crowd of more than 17,000. He did not, that night, thrill the crowd — as he sometimes does — with a show of personal virtuosity in a cello concerto by Dvorák or Schumann, which he plays as well as anyone on Earth. He participated, instead, as a member of an ensemble performing interesting music in styles colored by influences from world sources — Asian, African, Eastern-European — in which he took brief solos on his cello or on other instruments of more exotic design. All evening, in other words, he functioned as one of many.

The more than 17,000 people who had shown their continued delight that night had come, from what I could glean from conversations around me, to spend the evening with the friend they had known for many years, from his appearances on Sesame Street or with Mr. Rogers. They knew their friend Yo-Yo because years ago he had shown them how it was possible to be a nice guy as well as a wonderful musician. Anyone contemplating a career in the performing arts — or in anything else, for that matter, for which becoming famous might be a helpful ingredient — would do well to study the example of Yo-Yo Ma.

Yo-Yo formed the Silk Road Ensemble at Tanglewood in 2000, an open-ended consortium of musicians from the various cultures along the famous old trade route between China and the West, with the intent of reviving past musical cultures or re-creating contemporary imitations of their stylistic outlines. The group first visited here, at Royce Hall, in 2002, and I found the concert “curiously unsatisfying, a smorgasbord of tidy but blandly spiced dishes.” Either I or the Ensemble — maybe both — have changed over three years because the concert at the Bowl last week was satisfying, and occasionally thrilling. There was a kind of eloquence in the seven, long-listed works, and even in the dazzling encores, in which echoes in a time warp — a cascade of fast plucked notes from Wu Man’s pipa, a virtuoso vocal cadenza by supersinger Ganbaatar Khongorzul, a mournful cantilena from Yo-Yo’s cello, or from an ancient cello-like instrument of similar shape — seemed to hang suspended in time, belonging to both past and present.

I don’t know where any of this is heading, this music that defies boundaries or definition; must I? This was a concert of serious, very beautiful, sometimes extremely exciting music, and perhaps that’s all the definition we need to restart the troubled performing arts. Incidentally, in the same review from 2002 in which I deplored the earlier version of Silk Road, I delivered something of a rave for Tan Dun’s Water Passion, which had just come out on a Sony recording. Now I can’t stand the work. Plus ça change...

Opera by Template

Within five days, September 15–19, 2003, the infamous mad monk Rasputin trod the stage in opera houses on both sides of the planet. In Los Angeles — as I am sure you’d prefer to forget — there was Deborah Drattell’s Nicholas and Alexandra with Plácido Domingo himself self-cast as the flamboyant charlatan. At the Finnish National Opera in Helsinki, Matti Salminen took on the title role in Einojuhani Rautavaara’s Rasputin. That opera, recorded and televised at the world premiere, is now at hand on an Ondine DVD. You don’t need me to tell you which is the better of the two operas, but I can tell you by how much.

Rautavaara (born in 1928 and, by the way, in Finnish you have to pronounce every vowel separately, so leave yourself plenty of time) studied for a time in the U.S. with Copland, Persichetti and Sessions. He belongs to a group of Finnish neoromantics, all of them prolific and well supported at home, who have created a respectable native rep-ertory. Aulis Sallinen, whose Kullervo was per-formed here in 1992, is probably the best known.

There is nothing wrong with Rasputin; up against Drattell’s opera, you can take this as high praise. Everything that happens in the opera is exactly what you’d expect to happen. The orchestration is big, romantic and dark. Rasputin’s first long aria, in which he asserts his power and informs the assembled Russian royalty of how indispensable he intends to be to the continued health of the empire, is a marvelous showpiece, and Salminen dines on it most lavishly. (He’ll be the Gurnemanz in the L.A. Opera’s upcoming Parsifal.) Jorma Hynninen is Tsar Nicholas; Lilli Paasikivi is his Tsarina. Mikko Franck, who made his local debut last season at Disney Hall leading Shosta-kovich’s Twelfth Symphony, but took ill after one performance (wouldn’t you?), is the conductor.

Dark and handsome (I won’t bother you with any more vowels to chew on) in Helsinki’s marvelous new house, Rasputin strikes me altogether as the personification of an operatic dead end. No, perhaps “per-sonification” is wrong; come to think of it, somewhere behind the excellent work of the human cast and orchestra and the intelligence of the stage director and designers, the impeccable turning of some kind of operatic machine is faintly, but clearly, heard.

And suddenly the inferiority of Drattell’s opera doesn’t seem so bad. At least its incompetence was the work of human hands.

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