LIVE: Philadelphia Orchestra with Yo-Yo Ma @ SPAC, 08/05/2022
Yo-Yo Ma returned to SPAC on Friday night as promised, and with him, he brought a very full crowd of classical music lovers to the park. A heavy wool blanket of heat has swaddled the region recently, and even the gentle rains prior to the performance did little to ease the thickness in the air.
The concert drew folks out of their air-conditioned homes, however, because — well, this is Yo-Yo Ma. Even those who don’t follow classical music know of the famous cellist, whose talent and musical intuition are only matched by his philanthropy and educational outreach. He’s a treasure, both good-hearted and beyond professional on his instrument.
Fans gathered about the arts center awaiting him, and he walked out humbly pushing William Eddins, the guest conductor (and star himself in the music world) alongside him to accept the applause. Ma’s smile and graceful presence set everyone at ease as they launched into a voluptuous “Aria” from Villa-Lobos’ Bacchianas Brasileiras No. 5.
This piece utilizes only cellos, with the soprano being performed by Ma. The sensuality of the music moved the audience, who seemed to breathe with the phrasing along with the musicians. I had goosebumps, forgetting the heat and settling into the romance of the piece. Ma often closed his eyes, and his ability to feel the music (remember, he doesn’t read sheet music during performances) felt like he was almost floating through the challenging piece.
But he wasn’t floating. Sweating, he leaned over the cello and back on his heels a few times, dancing and swaying with the melody.
Eddins literally jumped on his podium as they moved into “Cello Concerto No. 1 in A minor, Op. 33” by Saint-Saens. This piece, in addition to being well loved in the cannon, presents the opportunity to show off skill in finger position and bowing. Ma’s ability to perform the tremendously complicated techniques required with a smile showed how years of performance have released him to be present and truly enjoy the music as a master. It was such fun to watch him grin at the violinist to his right, and make eye contact with Eddins celebrating a particularly challenging phrasing.
Saint-Saens blurs the lines between movements, maintaining sound throughout the concerto. So when the piece ended, the audience erupted into applause, breaking through the curtain of heat with joy.
After a brief intermission, the Philadelphia Orchestra returned without Ma with a lovely turn on “Sheherazade,” the Korsakov piece that tells the story of a princess who survives a misogynistic sultan by weaving stories to keep his interest. The musicians did just that. But the entire ensemble shone, releasing us all from reality and moving listeners instead to the Russian composer’s much-loved melodies.
The Philadelphia Orchestra will be at SPAC through next week. Tonight they will accompany a showing of “The Princess Bride,” playing the score composed by Dire Straits‘ lead man Mark Knopfler. On Wednesday, August 1st, the orchestra performs Beethoven’s Fifth with beloved Yannick Nezet-Seguin at the podium. If you miss that but long for more Beethoven, Thursday they will perform a Rossini and then Beethoven’s “Eroica.” Jim is itching to go see Angel Blue singing Coleman and Barber with the Orchestra on Friday. And of course the grand finale: Beethoven’s Ninth will be performed for us to enjoy on Saturday, August 13th.
If you are hesitating to attend, don’t. The Philadelphia only comes once a year, and it is truly unique to listen to such world-class music surrounded by the pines of SPAC. Grab a blanket, spread out on the lawn, and bring your snacks. No fussiness or dress code noted, and the music will take you away briefly on a journey you might not even know you needed.