Through his now frequent visits to the city as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's creative consultant, Yo-Yo Ma has made himself the poster child for elevating the role of culture in people's everyday lives and advancing their opportunities to experience classical music in their communities.
But his services by no means end with his being one of today's most outspoken arts advocates. The superstar cellist also makes it his mission to throw his considerable clout and prestige behind deserving 20th century cello repertory.
His latest local effort in that direction took place Thursday night at Symphony Center, where he joined guest conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to perform Witold Lutoslawski's gnarly and challenging Cello Concerto. The performance proved a fitting tribute to the late, great Polish composer on the 100th anniversary of his birth.
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With this 1970 masterpiece, written for cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, Lutoslawski reinvented the relationship between soloist and orchestra. The subliminal dramatic scheme casts the cellist as a solitary individual menaced by the orchestral mob; the attacks become more aggressive each time he tries to assert himself. Only at the end of this tumultuous battle of wills are the tables turned, and the cello's voice prevails, undimmed and indomitable: Order has been restored out of chaos.
The ingeniously constructed score is a mine field of technical and musical difficulties, not just for the cellist but for the conductor and everyone in the orchestra. It opens, innocently enough, with solo cello repeating the note D over and over, like a heartbeat. The action grows violent as the soloist fends off noisy attempts by the brass to silence him. In such pages Lutoslawski makes striking use of controlled improvisation in the various orchestral groups.
At times Ma scrubbed his cello so furiously that you feared he would saw it in two. But his lyrical soliloquy over a field of eerie string glissandos was no less brilliantly achieved than the wilder episodes. The sheer intensity of feeling Rostropovich brought to the concerto was uniquely his, but Ma's virtuosic performance was eloquent in its own way.
Salonen is today's most eloquent champion of Lutoslawski's works. A brief video playing during intermission and after the concerts affirms the fact, and next month Sony will release his set of the four Lutoslawski symphonies, the third of which the composer wrote for Georg Solti and the Chicago Symphony. Salonen did an amazing job of sorting out the concerto's seething and sputtering instrumental details on Thursday. His partnership with Ma was even tighter than their collaboration on the Lutoslawski concerto for the opening of Los Angeles' Walt Disney Hall in 2003.
Looking exhausted at the end, and for good reason, Ma got a bear hug from Salonen and a big ovation from the audience. Some listeners chuckled near the beginning of the concerto when the trumpets were hurling sonic razzberries at the soloist, but most audience members listened with rapt concentration.
As with other musicians of his generation, it has taken Salonen awhile to make peace with the towering master of 20th century Finnish music, Jean Sibelius. He now conducts Sibelius' music with such astringent clarity of texture and refinement of sound as it give it renewed vigor. Such was the case with the two Sibelius rarities that occupied the first half of the program, the tone poem "Pohjola's Daughter" and Symphony No. 7.
The dark murmurs of Kenneth Olsen's solo cello at the outset of "Pohjola's Daughter," later joined by bass clarinet and contrabassoon, set the bardic tone. Salonen played up the dramatic atmosphere of the score, its rugged surges of brass and wind-whipped strings not heard at these concerts for 48 years.
He did even better by the Sibelius Seventh, a fastidiously crafted, single-movement symphony the composer purged of all body fat. Salonen gauged transitions as attentively as he illuminated textures, and he had the various orchestral choirs conversing with one another in the most idiomatic manner. Jay Friedman's trombone led the heroic swells of brass sonority that form the mighty pillars of this symphony.
The concert closed with Tchaikovsky's "Francesca da Rimini." Salonen wrung every last ounce of color and excitement from this Dante-esque tone poem, a brilliant orchestral showpiece Franz Liszt would have been proud to have written. The orchestra players threw themselves into the high-decibel score as if their lives depended on it.
The program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; $40-$275; 312-294-3000, cso.org.