Yo-Yo Ma Plays Elgar’s Cello Concerto With the San Diego Symphony at Civic Theatre

From the rapturous reception cellist Yo-Yo Ma received Tuesday when he entered center stage at Civic Theatre to play Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto with the San Diego Symphony, it was clear that Ma was the reason for the midweek sold out house. The agile 68-year-old cellist is known for his humanitarian engagements as well as his prowess as a classical musician. Since 2006 he has been a United Nations Messenger of Peace; he is the founder of an environmental organization Our Common Nature, a board member of the World Economic Forum, and founder of the global musical collective the Silk Road Ensemble.

Yo-Yo Ma [photo (c.) Jason Bell]

My favorite personal memory of a Yo-Yo Ma performance is his traversal many years ago of the complete J. S. Bach unaccompanied cello sonatas at the Balboa Theatre in downtown San Diego. In the middle of one of the slow movements, a serious earthquake shook the 1924 building with audible creaks and groans, but Ma, completely unflustered, did not drop a note and kept on playing as if nothing unusual had happened.

Mother Nature was much kinder Tuesday evening, but Ma’s flawless concentration and riveting focus was still on display throughout the Elgar Concerto. His extremely understated approach to the opening “Adagio” instantly quieted the 3,000 member audience, but for my taste he subjected more of the Elgar Concerto than was necessary to his gossamer dynamic restraint. Of course, Ma’s technical finesse throughout the concerto proved nonpareil, and his  “Allegro molto” of the second movement was breathtaking.

Music Director Rafael Payare gave the guest soloist lavish, attentive support in every movement of the concerto, and the orchestra’s exultant, bracing account of the finale provided a counterbalance to Ma’s earlier understatement.

Payare opened this concert with Richard Wagner’s meditative Introduction to Act III of his opera Die Meistersinger, a rarely programmed selection. I considered it an invitation to the audience to attend the San Diego Symphony concert on May 18 at The Rady Shell when the orchestra will offer Act I of Wagner’s Die Walküre.

Conducting Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony in E Minor from memory, a feat I always interpret as a conductor’s extraordinary commitment to a major work, Rafael Payare drew a dramatic, richly detailed account of this beloved work from the San Diego Symphony. This proved a banner evening for the string sections, starting with the cello section’s robust, sweeping main theme in the opening movement to their bracing pizzicato accompaniment when the violins had their chance with the delectable theme later in that movement. Payare’s graceful but driving tempo of the third movement “Valse” allowed the violins to soar through its exuberant figurations with admirable finesse and polish. In the Finale, the brass and woodwinds provided the requisite muscle for its stentorian themes and drove the orchestra to a brilliant, satisfying coda that shook the rafters and sent everyone home in a joyous mood.

This concert was presented by the San Diego Symphony on Tuesday, May 7, 2024, in the San Diego Civic Theatre.

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