Ravel: Alborada del gracioso
Ravel: Suite from Ma Mère l'Oye
Ravel: Rapsodie espagnole
Golijov: Azul ("Blue") for Cello, Hyperaccordion, Percussion and Orchestra - Yo-Yo Ma
Yesterday evening the National Symphony Orchestra's 2009-2010 season wrapped up for good as the musicians are probably bracing themselves up for unpredictable weather and assured traffic jams at the otherwise lovely outdoor venue of Wolf Trap in Virginia. The final concert was a curious affair: the program was certainly not one of the typical all-around crowd-pleasers. Nothing against Ravel, but I highly doubt that the performance was solidly sold-out thanks to his inventive, yes, but ultimately light Ma Mère l’Oye or Rapsodie espagnole. The name of our conductor for the occasion, Jeffrey Kahane, may not have rung many bells either, although he has been around for a while and is highly respected as a conductor and as a pianist.
The big draw on this unusual Tuesday night date was of course the promise of “An Evening with Yo-Yo Ma”, and the programmers took no chances by scheduling him after the intermission, thus avoiding the unavoidable exodus after his performance. It is also probably a safe bet to assume that most of the audience had never heard of Argentinean composer Osvaldo Golijov, and the promise of an “hyperaccordion” in the title of the piece sure made me cringe (What’s the point of moving 3,000 miles from the dreaded French instrument if it follows me here?!) but hey, an evening with Yo-Yo Ma is too good of an offer to pass, so there I was.
Although I’ve never been a huge fan of Ravel’s, I have to admit that his Alborada del Gracioso was an enjoyable, energetic way to start the festivities, hailing all the way back from Provence and its troubadours.
The scores he wrote for the four traditional tales Pavane de la Belle au bois dormant (Pavane of the Sleeping Beauty), Le petit poucet (Hop o’ My Thumb), Laideronnette, Impératrice des Pagodes (Empress of the Pagodas) and Les entretiens de la Belle et la Bête (The Conversations of Beauty and the Beast) are decidedly low-key but harmonically complex little pieces, and Jeffrey Kahane led the orchestra into appropriately multi-faceted, lively interpretations of them.
Then it was on to some vibrant, Iberia-flavored rhythms with his Rapsodie espagnole, no doubt inspired by both his Spanish mother and his own birth in Basque country. Full of joyful and languorous melodies, it was a fun and fitting way to conclude this mini Ravel festival, which turned out not to be so painful after all. So there.
If anybody ever questioned Yo-Yo Ma’s across the board popularity, the rousing ovation he received for simply appearing on the stage would have dissipated any remaining doubt. But more than just a superstar, the Paris-born, US-bred Chinese virtuoso remains first and foremost a consummate musician, and yesterday he obviously meant business. Golijov’s Azul for Cello, Hyperaccordion, Percussion and Orchestra is not an easy trip to get on, but extremely rewarding if you let yourself go with the flow. Originally written for Yo-Yo Ma and the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the 125th anniversary of the Tanglewood Festival in 2006, then reworked by its composer in 2007, it is a deeply atmospheric, at times widely exotic, journey through world cultures and religions that could have been magically transporting, if it had not been for the grating sounds of that darn “electronically enhanced” accordion. But hearing Yo-Yo Ma tackle a genuinely engaging contemporary work is always a real treat, and last night was no different, eventually giving this last concert, and the now past season, a truly grand finale.