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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Concert review: Yo-Yo Ma finds able partners in the Spokane Symphony for a spellbinding performance of Dvorak’s cello concerto

Renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma performs under the direction of Spokane Symphony Conductor James Lowe during a rehearsal Wednesday at the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Larry Lapidus For The Spokesman-Review

To launch the 2023 season of the Spokane Symphony, Music Director James Lowe led the orchestra in the opening concert of his dreams. It featured the world’s most famous classical musician, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, performing the greatest of all concertos for the cello, that of Antonin Dvorak.

With such anticipation for the arrival onstage of Ma, it would have been understandable had Lowe merely gotten through the first half of the program safely and efficiently, but what we received were exquisitely executed and deeply thoughtful performances of Dvorak’s First Slavonic Dance Op. 46 (1874) and Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 (1822).

The Slavonic Dance engages the listener from the first notes with its propulsive energy and brilliant scoring, displaying many of the same qualities we heard later in the evening put to more serious purposes. The orchestra impressed not only with the vitality of its playing, but with its precision and refinement. Lowe asked for, and received, great precision in phrasing and control over dynamics. He indicated to the orchestra not only how and when a note should begin, but how it should end, delighting the ear with a vital, living field of sound.

This precise presentation of detail and attention to balance bore rich rewards in the performance of the Schubert’s “Unfinished” symphony. It is a puzzling work, with its juxtaposition of enchanting melody and harsh, violent dissonance. It presents real difficulties of interpretation, which are often solved both by listeners and conductors, by dwelling on the melody and glossing over the disturbing dissonances. Lowe would have none of this. What he gave us instead was a real interpretation, one that presented Schubert’s B minor symphony not as a series of romantic episodes, but as a coherent masterpiece that we could comprehend as a landmark in the course of European music.

As Lowe views the work, it is an early expression of what became one of the dominant themes of the Romantic movement: death and the uncertainties of an afterlife. The sinister, threatening quality of the opening was intensified by the extreme slowness and quietness with which it began. The “big tune” of the first movement was drained of warmth, which made it appear more a distant hope of happiness than a celebration of it, a hope that was dashed by the sudden reappearance of the opening motif of infernal darkness. It was a gripping experience, brought off magnificently by the orchestra, which was blown a kiss by Lowe at the conclusion of the work.

It has become a cliche of music criticism (often enough repeated in this column) that the best concerto performances are those in which the orchestra collaborates with the soloist, rather than assuming the subservient role of “accompanist.” In the Dvorak cello concerto, however, if there is no collaboration, there is no performance. Dvorak cast the entire work as a series of collaborative, interdependent encounters, usually between the soloist and members of the orchestra, but sometimes between members of the orchestra, while the soloist remains silent.

Ma was born to play the Dvorak concerto, not only because of the extraordinary technical and interpretive levels he achieved, but also because he is a model of the modern classical musician, the most prominent attribute of which is an essentially collaborative nature. Still, for all his emphasis on the collaboration (see Shawn Vestal’s excellent frontpage article in Thursday’s Spokesman-Review), it must be admitted that Ma dominated this performance of the Dvorak concerto. He did so by exhibiting unbelievable command of the resources of his instrument, and by employing those resources to articulate every phrase in this long, difficult work with intensely communicative specificity. He held the audience spellbound by the clarity and immediacy with which he narrated the trials and triumphs, the awful longing, as well as the thrill of achievement that course through this great masterwork.

At the conclusion of the concerto, Ma rose and, turning to face the orchestra, lifted his hands in triumph, as if to say, “Look what we did!” He then embraced Lowe, concertmaster Mateusz Wolski and principal cello John Marshall, not politely, but fervently. Then he turned to the audience, pointed to us and raised both thumbs up, as though we had done something, too.