Conductor: Long Yu
Mussorgsky: Prelude to Khovanshchina
Zhao Lin: A Happy Excursion, Concerto for Pipa, Cello, and Concerto
Yo-Yo Ma: Cello
Wu Man: Pipa
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 (Pathétique)
One of the most respected and beloved classical musicians in the world for decades now, Yo-Yo Ma is nevertheless not always an easy one to catch live, and consequently any opportunity to bask into his unique talent has to be grabbed and enjoyed to the fullest, whether he’s premiering challenging works by major contemporary composers like Esa-Pekka Salonen or partaking into out-of-the-box endeavors by The Silk Road Project, the non-profit organization that he initiated over 10 years ago and is still going strong.
Last Wednesday evening, he was kind of doing both as he was presenting the U.S. premiere of prominent Chinese composer Zhao Lin’s A Happy Excursion, Concerto for Pipa, Cello, and Concerto with leading expert and tireless advocate of the pipa Wu Man as well as the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall. The two soloists have not only been collaborators, but also friends for over a couple of decades now, in particular for projects with the Silk Road Ensemble, and they in fact seemed to be thrilled to be onstage together.
Then add Piotr Tchaikovsky’s unfailingly crowd-pleasing Pathétique in the second part of the program, and David Geffen Hall was impressively full for a Wednesday evening, which is always a comforting sight to behold.
The concert opener was a short prelude to the endlessly vast and endlessly complex saga that is Modest Mussorgsky’s opera Khovanshchina. Just about 5-minute long, it was pretty much over before we even got a chance to really get into it, but, if nothing else, it was a nice warm-up for the musicians and a flavorful appetizer for the rest of us.
I had wondered why an essentially unknown Chinese concerto had been paired with the world-famous Pathétique symphony, beside making sure that people would show up and stay in their seats after intermission. But it did not take me long to notice that Zhao Lin’s A Happy Excursion expanded on a solid foundation of big lush romantic sounds that would have made Tchaikovsky proud. So there you are. On the other hand, the seemingly incongruous dialogue between the cello and the pipa, two instruments that boast of widely different backgrounds and sounds, eventually turned into a fully functional, if still odd, couple, and provided the novelty element of the adventure.
The composition was divided into three parts, which comprised the tumultuous birth of China as a country, the golden period of the harmoniously multicultural province of Shannxi, and the ever-chaotic present time. The mix of traditionally lyrical melodies, the happy-go-lucky moods of the solo instruments, and the exotic atmosphere conjured up by the pipa made for an unusual and engaging experience that eventually left a smile on everyone’s face, not the least the performers’.
After intermission, the orchestra was back in full force for Tchaikovsky’s magnificent Symphony No. 6, which, just like Mozart’s Jupiter the week before, felt like hearing from a good old friend that had been gone for a while, but never forgotten. Maestro Yu did not bring anything particularly new to it, but he was obviously having a grand time conducting the ultimate emotional roller coaster, and so did we listening to it.