Greenwich Village Orchestra Performs Beethoven's 9th at Washington Irving High School
Tristan Perich at The Kitchen

New York Philharmonic and Yo-Yo Ma Perform Salonen's Cello Concerto

At the end of a momentous week at the NY Philharmonic, it felt only right to stop by David Geffen Hall on Saturday night for the orchestra's final concert before leaving on their European tour this week. Indeed, the first half of the program almost felt like an homage to incoming NY Phil President and CEO Deborah Borda, who's spent the past 17 years leading the LA Phil to new heights of artistic and financial success. (Borda attended the series' opening concert last Wednesday.)

John Adams, who has been the LA Phil's Creative Chair since 2009, wrote The Chairman Dances (1985) in anticipation of (and not, as you might expect, drawn from) his groundbreaking 1987 opera Nixon in ChinaSubtitled "Foxtrot for Orchestra," it's bright and cheery music is interjected with periods of tension, just like the complex characters it portrays: Chairman Mao and his wife, Madame Mao. The audience cheered wildly at the end, a reaction still somewhat surprising for music that's barely 30 years old. 

The main event was the NY premiere of Esa-Pekka Salonen's Cello Concerto, written for and performed by Yo-Yo Ma. Salonen, who spent 17 years as the LA Phil's music director, left that post in 2009 to spend more time composing; he remains L.A.'s Conductor Laureate, as well as the NY Phil's Composer-in-Residence. Salonen, who has written concertos for Piano (2007), Violin (2009), and alto sax (!) (1980), apparently agreed to write one for Yo-Yo after a post-concert bender. "I know that we had agreed on something,” Salonen told the Times. “But I wasn’t sure on what."

Salonen spent nearly two years writing the 25 minute work, saying he wanted to push Yo-Yo to the outer limits of his seemingly-limitless ability. "When a musician is at the end of their physical capabilities," Salonen told us from the stage, "that frees them up to do something really magical."

Yo-Yo, who incredibly is now 61, playfully objected when he first saw the music.

"Why was Esa-Pekka angry at me?" Yo-Yo said. "What does he have against the cello? Why are you torturing me with impossible things? You know I can’t do that, you know it’s too fast.”

DSC06479But, over countless hours of rehearsal, Yo-Yo unlocked the key to this devilishly difficult concerto, which would trip up most cellists half of his age. The music starts slowly, elegiacally, with the cello rising out of a primordial twelve-tone ooze. The second movement was more violent, with Yo-Yo doing battle with both the orchestra and himself, playing along with an electronic loop.

The third movement projected what sounded like dying birds through speakers around the hall while Yo-Yo played in what seemed to be excruciating pain. Later, the Phil's principal percussionist Chris Lamb came to the front of the stage to play along with Yo-Yo on a set of congas and bongos. It was like a tarantella, with Yo-Yo responding to the tribal rhythms by slapping his bow on the bridge. Finally, the cello goes up and up, all the way to a high B-flat, equivalent to the next-to-highest note on a piano, accompanied by an electronic echo. Salonen, Yo-Yo, and NYP music director Alan Gilbert were all given an extended ovation, which seemed to be directed mostly at Yo-Yo and his ferocious musicianship. Not that Salonen is any less deserving, but this music is so dense, it needs another listen. 

After intermission, Gilbert and the Phil returned with a fairly pedestrian performance of Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique. Having just heard the BSO play it two weeks earlier at Carnegie, I wasn't exactly eager to hear it again so soon; I can only imagine how the Phil players must have felt having to play it for the fourth time in four days. That's a lot of Witches' Sabbath.

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