Yo-Yo Ma sounds like a late-20th-century cellist--focused, direct, lean and athletic. On Saturday, in his second performance with the National Symphony Orchestra this weekend, his tone fit the music for two concertos.
Richard Danielpour's Cello Concerto, a 1992 commission for Ma by the San Francisco Symphony, shows the composer in his most compelling voice. It's a finely crafted work, rhythmically catchy and tonally attractive on a moment-by-moment basis. Danielpour often assembles his musical material as pastiche, and here he mixes, among other styles, the wails of a Jewish cantor, Olivier Messiaen's chirping, metal-hitting-metal percussion effects, and, most prominently, the high-energy swagger of Leonard Bernstein's Broadway music (a native New Yorker, Danielpour seems to be saying, "Cliches be damned, this is what the City sounds like"). From this he fashioned some lovely sonorities and catchy rhythms.
It was exhilarating to hear a top soloist pressed to the limits of his considerable abilities. Ma played with the sheet music on the stand in front of him but was totally connected to the score.
John Tavener's "The Protecting Veil" (1987), a concerto for solo cello and strings, followed intermission. It's 45 minutes of ethereal musings, not a journey but tranquil rotations around a fixed point. Ma sat up behind the orchestra on a platform, like a high priest intoning sacred rites; spotlighting was used as visual incense, soaking the soloist in blue or red light.
I suspect the audience was just about evenly split between those who found Tavener's musical spirituality a deeply moving experience, and those who were simply bored. I was sympathetic to both sides, because for all its modest, noble and pretty sounds, it goes on too long, given the slimness of its musical materials. Conductor Leonard Slatkin's accompaniment emphasized the loud-soft contrasts, which made for a clear-eyed interpretation, more contemplative and reflective than viscerally charged.
Rossini's "William Tell" Overture--with its extended introduction from the cello section--opened the program, and gave the NSO's distinguished section (led by David Hardy) a high-profile place to roam.