Yo-Yo Ma Honors Bernard Greenhouse, Celebrates Cape Symphony Orchestra’s 50th Anniversary
It was an extraordinary concert, one that will be long remembered by those lucky enough to be in attendance. Yo-Yo Ma performed with such soaring beauty and exquisite expressiveness that even those who regularly attend his concerts agreed that they had never heard him play so magnificently.
Ma played not one, but three works with the Cape Cod Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday, February 1, each one incredibly moving, the very embodiment of his conviction that music is a powerful form of communication: Tchaikovsky’s “Andante Cantabile,” Saint-Saens’ Cello Concerto No. 1, and Pablo Casals’ arrangement of “The Song of the Birds.”
Under the leadership of conductor Jung-Ho Pak, the Cape Cod Symphony Orchestra was a fine partner to Ma. It was a short concert, only an hour and a half, with no intermission, but the music was glorious.
The concert was the highlight of the Cape Cod Symphony orchestra’s year-long 50th anniversary celebration. It also honored, in Pak’s words, three generations of cellists: Yo-Yo Ma, his friend Bernard Greenhouse, who died at the age of 95 at his home in Wellfleet on May 13 of last year, and Greenwood’s teacher, the legendary Pablo Casals.
Greenhouse studied with Casals from 1946 to 1948 and honored Casals throughout his own lifetime by playing the Catalan folksong, “The Song of the Birds” (“El Cant dels Ocells”), as an encore for every concert he performed. Casals (1876 to 1973) began playing it as an encore to protest the Franco regime in his native Catalonia, a region in northeast Spain, bordering France. The song has become a symbol of peace and freedom throughout the world.
Thus, Yo-Yo Ma paid respect to both Greenhouse and Casals with his breathtakingly beautiful rendition of the piece, and Jung-Ho Pak followed through with his opening selection of orchestra pieces intended to evoke the Catalan region, one from French composer Jacques Ibert and another from Spanish composer, Manuel de Falla, both contemporaries of Casals.
The six-movement “Divertissement” by Jacques Ibert (1890-1962) was a joyful, full of life and humor, including Pak’s smiling acknowledgement of premature applause at the end of the fourth movement. He held up two fingers and gently mouthed the words, “two more.”
Ibert composed the music for a 1929 performance of “The Italian Straw Hat,” a play written in 1851 by Eugène Labiche and Marc Michel. The plot involves a man’s efforts to replace an Italian straw hat that his horse has eaten. The hat belongs to a married woman who removed it while in the embrace of her lover, and knows if she returns home hatless, her husband will discover her infidelity. All is complicated by the fact that the owner of the horse is on his way to his own wedding.
(The play was made into a French silent movie in 1928 by director René Clair. The silent film was a satire of the play and an homage to earlier films; Clair moved the action in 1895, the first year films were produced, and used many earlier cinema techniques. Benedict Mason wrote an orchestral score for the film and incorporated Ibert’s “Divertissement” into it. (The film was made available as a DVD in 2010, but, alas another score was used in that version.)
If there were perchance a soul who wasn’t already aglow with the anticipation of seeing Yo-Yo Ma perform, the “Divertissement” surely raised their spirits. This is a lighthearted piece, full of spirit and sound effects, sounding much like the soundtrack to a wild and crazy cartoon, with lots of fun and insanity—and an excerpt from Mendelssohn’s iconic “Wedding March.”
The orchestra sparkled in this multifaceted piece, which starts off with a big fanfare, rumbling low strings, and cavorting woodwinds, rushing madly here and there. The contemplative second movement offered a respite from the frantic pace, and the lovely hollow-sounding solo flute evokes a foggy morning before the mad chase resumed. The third movement opened with resounding cellos, low and swelling, very soft and subtle, followed by rippling harp and piano. A waltz highlighted the fourth movement, with accents from the woodwinds. The fifth movement was a cheery parade, and the sixth ended with a feverishly celebratory dance, often bringing to mind old-time cartoon chase scenes.
Next on the program was “Ritual Fire Dance” by Manuel de Falla (1876-1946). The work is a movement from his 1915 ballet, “El Amor Brujo” (“The Magic Love”). In the story a young gypsy woman, haunted by the ghost of her dead husband, performs the ritual fire dance around the campfire to cause the ghost to appear. Faster and faster she leads him in dance, until he is drawn into the fire and vanishes forever.
The work opened with a Klezmer-like clarinet solo, echoed by the violins, over the powerful repeating rhythm of the low strings and horns. It is said that the work was influenced by Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” and one could hear this, not only in the buzzing bee sound in the cellos, but in the trills and ornamentation, and in the accelerating and enveloping rhythm of the piece. The insistent melody was also reminiscent of Ravel’s “Bolero.”
Yo-Yo Ma was introduced with a slide show narrated by CCSO executive director Jerome Karter. The presentation highlighted Ma’s multifaceted career in classical, world, and American music. Through his appreciation and exploration of the music, Yo-Yo Ma is achieving his goal “to connect the world’s neighborhoods through the arts.”
Ma began with “Andante Cantabile” by Plotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. The work was written in 1871, as the second movement in the composer’s first string quartet (String Quartet No. 1 in D Major). The hauntingly beautiful melody was inspired by a Ukrainian folk song, “Sidel Vanya,” that Tchaikovsky, on a visit to his brother’s estate, overheard a carpenter singing.
The words of the original tune are unremarkable (“Vanya sat on a divan and smoked a pipe of tobacco”), but Tchaikovsky’s work is remarkably expressive, famously moving Tolstoy to tears when he heard it.
Yo-Yo Ma began almost imperceptibly softly, his touch on his 1712 Davidov Stradivarius projecting the delicate melody with a sensuous beauty. He leaned toward the other musicians, inviting them to share the experience, signaling to them and Pak, and smiling at individual players, the power of the music evident in his eyes.
Ma’s dramatic pauses and graceful use of the bow added to the effectiveness of the piece. The audience was clearly moved throughout, but particularly as he brought the piece to a conclusion, moving every slower and softer toward the highest reaches of the cello fingerboard, melding sound with silence.
After acknowledging the tumultuous applause, Ma and Pak turned to the featured concerto, Camille Saint-Saëns’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33. Composed in 1872, the work is in three sections, performed as one movement, without a pause.
Saint-Saens and Casals were friends, and Saint-Saens told Casals that the concerto had been inspired by Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6, the Pastoral. Casals described the concert to Jacqueline de Pre (who once played the Davidov cello), when she was 15 and studying the concerto with him in a masterclass, as “a storm interrupted by passages of great calm and peace.”
The piece opens with a storm, Casals said, and the cello’s accented entrance represents lightning. Gradually, “we begin to see the blue in the sky.”
Yo-Yo Ma’s storm seemed less violent than some other interpretations of the work; the warmth of his tone and the incredible smoothness of his playing gave the turbulence a magical beauty and dramatic power. Ma’s serene smile, his head tilted to the heavens, his occasional nod at Pak, all served to mute the fury of the storm, while retaining its grandeur.
This is a demanding concerto, even for a virtuoso cellist, with fast and furious passages and complicated runs up and down the fingerboard, echoed by the orchestra. Ma played it all with ease, occasionally pausing to wipe his brow with his handkerchief or looking up to enjoy a frolicking flute solo.
The calm and peaceful middle section of the concerto gave us another opportunity to appreciate Ma’s expressive and emotionally rich playing. His playing was exquisitely gentle, seemingly effortless, particularly in the delicate cadenza. There were gentle feathery trills, soft rhythmic passages, deep low melodies calling to mind Saint-Saens’ “The Swan,” and, throughout, wonderful musical and visual communication. The orchestra offered gentle support, fully absorbed in the joint effort.
Soon, the mood changed again. In the third section, the pace picked up considerably with a restatement of the theme in the first section before introducing another soft and leisurely theme in the cello. There were alternating fast and contemplative passages, ending in a joyful explosion of sound, bringing the audience to its feet once again in a heartfelt standing ovation.
There followed a brief slide show on Bernard Greenhouse, narrated by Jerome Karter. Greenhouse, considered one of the 20th century’s greatest cellists, played a 1707 Stradivarius, “Paganini, the Countess of Stainlein,” and produced a sound described as “burnished gold.” Ma played his cello once, we were told, and described the experience as very sensuous.
Ma took a moment to congratulate the orchestra on “this extraordinary musical milestone,” its 50th anniversary, praising the orchestra for its partnership with the Cape Cod Conservatory, and congratulating the organization for its newly formed youth orchestra. He also praised Greenhouse: “Everywhere I go, I see the influence of Bernard Greenhouse in his students” and Casals, regarded as one of the greatest cellists of all time and the man most responsible for promoting the cello as a solo instrument.
Yo-Yo Ma’s tribute to Greenhouse and Casals, his “Song of the Birds,” was extraordinarily beautiful, like liquid, flowing gold. It is a simple folk tune (the lyrics are about the joyous response of birds to the birth of Christ), but Ma played it with such feeling and intensity, the sound of the cello gently rising and falling, intensely lyrical, sorrowful, and hopeful. At one point, I am sure, everyone in the audience held their breath at the same time—it was truly marvelous, and no one wanted it to end.
But, Yo-Yo Ma finally had to go, and the concert ended with another work by Saint-Saens, “Dance Bacchanale” from his opera “Samson et Dalila,” which Pak described as “sensuous and evil and luscious at the same time. This was a wild and spirited dance, accented by woodwind solos, including a lovely oboe solo in a Middle Eastern style, ending in a frenzied and triumphant whirlwind. The audience cheered in approval.
Those who missed the concert might enjoy seeing Ma’s 2005 performance of the Andante Cantabile with the Pittsbugh Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Sir Andrew Davis.
Here is Pablo Casals playing “Song of the Birds” at the Kennedy White House in 1961:
And Bernard Greenhouse playing it in 2011, at 95, a few months before his death: