Ma and Ling Bring Brilliance to Elgar

United StatesUnited States Smetana, Elgar, Dvořák: Yo-Yo Ma (cello), Cleveland Orchestra, Jahja Ling (conductor) Blossom Music Center, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, 08.16.2014. (MSJ)

Smetana: Overture to The Bartered Bride
Elgar: Cello Concerto in E minor, Opus 85
Dvořák: Symphony No. 6 in D major, Opus 60


Is classical music relevant? That’s the big question those of us who write about music are constantly wrestling with. We expend considerable effort trying to assure the general public that it is worthwhile for them to put down their cell phones, e-readers, and gaming devices for the time required to listen to a long concerto or symphony that doesn’t have a single flashing LED light or computer-animated explosion anywhere in it. We try to caution the world that much of what has been discovered to be of great value to humanity can be lost as people fall over each other in the race to embrace that latest “gee-whiz” technology. We can lose our identity as humans if we forget our cultural achievements. It has happened numerous times throughout history, and the world is poorer for it.

sir Edward Elgar must have felt something like this when he wrote his Cello Concerto in E minor, for though the 1919 work is noble and tender, it carries a heartbreaking weight. The composer, who had been lionized in the years before World War One, had suddenly become a relic of a pompous, impractical past in its bitter wake. Around the same time, his beloved spouse Alice had died, leaving the aging composer unmoored, adrift in an unfamiliar world, stinging from the loss of everything that he held dear. Listening to it in the age of “infotainment” and Facebook personality quizzes, it’s hard not to feel equally despairing.

Yet the answer was self-contained on a recent Saturday night as Yo-Yo Ma joined the Cleveland Orchestra and guest conductor Jahja Ling, presenting Elgar’s concerto to a capacity crowd at Blossom Music Center. Without pretense or pomp, Ma threw himself into the piece, daring an audience of nearly 20,000 people to relate this sad and exhilarating music to their own lives. He played boldly, stabbing climactic notes with fierce slashes of his bow, then dropped down to a breathtaking whisper for the gentlest passages. Ma has been playing the work for decades, recording it memorably in the 1980s. His grasp has only deepened over the years, without losing a jot of the technical brilliance that marked his rise as a classical superstar.

Ma was supported hand-in-glove by Ling and the orchestra. For many years the resident conductor in Cleveland, Ling maintains a familiarity and unobtrusive authority in his direction. Moreover, years ago Ling realized that the English repertory was underrepresented by the orchestra, and he often conducted Elgar when it seemed no one else would. His leadership combined an idiomatic understanding of the composer’s elusive half-tints with the orchestra’s gem-like clarity.

At the end, the audience leaped to their feet with a roar, having taken it all to heart. No wonder Ma celebrated by giving Ling a series of high-fives after the encore of Tchaikovsky’s “Andante cantabile” from his String Quartet No. 1, arranged for cello and orchestra. I would defy anyone who witnessed this performance to claim that classical music is dying. Even Elgar himself might have smiled optimistically.

The mood of the Elgar was a profound wrench from the opening, Smetana’s Overture to The Bartered Bride. This comic curtain-raiser could hardly be more contrasting, full of cheery tunes and daredevil fugato writing for the strings, dashed off with astonishing precision by the Clevelanders. Ling was very attentive to keeping rhythms both crisp and buoyant, but he also knows the Blossom pavilion’s acoustics like the back of his hand. His shrewd pace was exciting and daring, yet not so fast that details were blurred and lost. Like his previous Cleveland boss, Christoph von Dohnányi, Ling brings out the piquant colors in the orchestration, letting the players shine without interpretive interference from the podium.

Ling brought similar virtues to Dvořák’s Sixth Symphony, a charmingly bucolic piece that was a little surprising to see in a return visit so soon after Franz Welser-Möst led it at Severance Hall just a year ago. Ling emphasized the work’s genial colors, working up excitement, but more often relishing its rural charms. Welser-Möst concentrated on focusing and streamlining the volubility, though not even he could make the discursive slow movement hold together. Ling’s direction emphasized the work’s humanity, singing in the first two movements and dancing in the last two. After hearing the return of this local favorite conductor, the audience began its warm ovation before the final chord was finished, and the musicians shared the sentiment, declining to stand for one of the curtain calls, directing the applause to Ling.

Whatever our constantly evolving concerns may be about the long-term future of the art, it was plainly evident on this lovely summer night in rural Ohio that classical music is joyously alive and well.


Mark Sebastian Jordan

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