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Yo-Yo Ma's star power makes opening gala shine

Superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma knows how to handle a crowd. That's good, because he had a big one to contend with Saturday as the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra held its gala season opening at Kleinhans Music Hall.

People were packed to the rafters. The catered dinner beforehand sold out, as did the standing-room-only tickets for the concert. Excitement was in the air, and exultation. In Buffalo, you can't take anything for granted, least of all our first-class symphony orchestra. Every new season is a reason to rejoice.

Ma, cello in hand, reflected the sparkling spirit.

At the start of the concert, rumors were already flying about what an over-the-top great guy he is. BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta, addressing patrons at a pre-concert dinner, confided how she tried to dismiss Ma from an onerous rehearsal, telling him she and the orchestra had a few difficult passages to work on. "I want to work on those difficult passages, too," Ma reportedly said.

On stage, too, he gave it his all.

While eschewing bells and whistles, Ma is a vivacious, extroverted performer. While some other musicians appear lost in their own worlds, Ma turns outward, reveling in the people who surround him. He rarely glances at his cello. Instead, as he plays, he looks at Falletta, at us, at the ceiling of Kleinhans or, often, at the orchestra.

Which could make you wonder a little about who, exactly, was running the show. Often, turned toward the violin section, Ma appeared to be cuing the orchestra. He certainly seems to assert a little more control, in his own quiet and charming way, than the average soloist. Even when he wasn't playing, he was waving his bow around, almost in the manner of a conductor. He was that involved in the music.

However he, Falletta and the other musicians arranged things, the system worked.

The Elgar cello concerto shone. Deeply personal and emotional, lushly romantic, it is perfect for Ma. The cellist brought out the intimacy of the work, playing the long, languorous phrases of the middle movements with the utmost delicacy. He's not a volatile player, but he's mesmerizing, in his own way. There is an energy to his playing, but it's a quiet, contained energy -- a concentration, almost. Straightforward as a prayer, it draws the audience in. Elgar marked this music "noblimente," and that's what he got. The orchestra seemed perfectly in synch with Ma, and it was as beautiful a performance as I've ever heard.

Fans of sheer virtuosity -- and let's face it, we all like that -- must have been pleased with the concerto's last movement, which Ma tackled with a bright, outgoing enthusiasm. Again, there was no grandstanding -- but his performance was brisk, adept and humorous. Always, Ma displays a wide variety of textures, from a rich cantabile to a witty pizzicato. Sometimes his tone can be teasing, flirtatious. He clearly enjoys what he's doing, and he communicates his joy to the audience.

The audience responded with prolonged cheering and was rewarded with an encore, the ethereal "Elegy," by Behzad Ranjbaran, who was in the audience. Fragile, almost like a mirage, Ranjbaran's piece required the musicians to play with unguarded emotion. One trance-like passage saw Ma playing a mournful duet with Concertmaster Charles Haupt and harpist Suzanne Thomas, who contributed quiet accompaniment. It was an admirable follow-up to the Elgar, which is also elegiac in nature.

Ma showed his down-to-earth side during the curtain calls, trooping out with his arm slung around Falletta. How charming was that? They looked like two revelers coming out of Cole's.

The first half of the evening was bombastic and joyous -- Rossini's "William Tell" Overture and Richard Strauss' orgiastic "Don Juan." Both glittered. Consider our 2005-2006 Philharmonic season off to a sparkling start.


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