The Many Excellences of Yo-Yo Ma
|Photo by Stephen Danelian|
Even if he werent one of the finest performers on his chosen instrument anywhere in todays 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 Mans pipa, a virtuoso vocal cadenza by supersinger Ganbaatar Khongorzul, a mournful cantilena from Yo-Yos cello, or from an ancient cello-like instrument of similar shape seemed to hang suspended in time, belonging to both past and present.
I dont 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 thats 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 Duns Water Passion, which had just come out on a Sony recording. Now I cant stand the work. Plus ça change...
Opera by Template
Within five days, September 1519, 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 youd prefer to forget there was Deborah Drattells 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 Rautavaaras Rasputin. That opera, recorded and televised at the world premiere, is now at hand on an Ondine DVD. You dont 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 Drattells opera, you can take this as high praise. Everything that happens in the opera is exactly what youd expect to happen. The orchestration is big, romantic and dark. Rasputins 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. (Hell be the Gurnemanz in the L.A. Operas 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-kovichs Twelfth Symphony, but took ill after one performance (wouldnt you?), is the conductor.
Dark and handsome (I wont bother you with any more vowels to chew on) in Helsinkis 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 Drattells opera doesnt seem so bad. At least its incompetence was the work of human hands.
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