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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Concert Review: The Hero and the Prince

Bartók and Dvořák at Symphony Hall.
Hero with a cello: the astonishing Yo-Yo Ma.
Photo not taken in Symphony Hall. © 2011 Sony Classics.

The orchestra roster printed in this year's Boston Symphony Orchestra concert programs still has a blank space by the words "Music Director." But Tuesday night's concert (the fourth of this program with guest cellist Yo-Yo Ma) proved that the BSO is moving on from the departure of James Levine.

Mr. Ma was at Symphony Hall to play Antonín Dvořák's Cello Concerto in b minor, an inspired product of the Czech composer's three years spent teaching music in America. Mr. Ma once described this concerto as "a hero's journey." He lived up to his description, playing the vivid solo part with fire, emotion, and total involvement with the music.

Dvořák wrote passages of great lyric beauty for both orchestra and soloist, with treacherous cadenzas for the latter. The formidable double-stops and trills up on the neck of the instrument can push any cellist's capabilities. Mr. Ma's responded with playing that seemed to get better with each movement. Playing with head thrown back and fingers flying, his cello wept in the slow section of the finale, before bringing the work to a triumphant close.

Juanjo Mena, who first conducted the BSO at Tanglewood in 2010, made his Symphony Hall debut with these concerts. Mr. Mena proved a skilled accompanist, helped by strong playing from the BSO. The horns deserve praise for the noble reading of the second subject of the Allegro, and the mystic, almost Wagnerian chorale heard in the finale. The subscription audience were enthusiastic, and adoring of Mr. Ma.

They were less happy about the second half of the program. The Wooden Prince is an early work by Hungarian composer Béla Bartók, and a work that was new to the orchestra. Mr. Mena displayed an unerring grasp of Bartók's tricky time changes. The Spanish conductor navigated the oversized orchestra (extra percussionists, celesta and saxophones) through the score's hairpin curves. 

Instead of sonic overkill, Bartók produces a wide palette of tonal colors, from the lurching percussive rhythm of the Prince himself to a long lyric pas de deux for the lead dancers. The work includesme lodies inspired by Hungarian folk-tunes, as well as the wry humor evident in his later, more popular ballet score The Miraculous Mandarin.

Mr. Mena's own podium performance was fascinating to watch, combining traditional time-beating with the herky-jerky movements of the ballet's title character. But at 50 minutes, and in 12 sections with no pauses, The Wooden Prince is a heavy meal for the first-time listener to digest. It was greeted with polite applause. Work, composer, and orchestra deserved better.

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