If Tom Hanks is America’s Dad, then I’d like to nominate Yo-Yo Ma as America’s Uncle.
Warm. Funny. Charming. Beloved by all. Also: extraordinarily talented. Superstar. Able to slip effortlessly between genres, from classical to bluegress to traditional Chinese music, in collaborations with performers like Bobby McFerrin, Carlos Santana, and the many talented artists who make up his own Silk Road Ensemble. Not to mention: Simpsons character. “Sexiest Classical Musician” (2001). “Time‘s Most Influential People” (2020). Many, many awards.
Earlier this week, America’s Uncle paid Toronto – a city with a special place in Ma’s heart – a visit, joining the TSO for a centenary celebration featuring the music of Leonard Bernstein, Toronto’s own Oskar Morawetz, Wolastoqiyik-Canadian composer Jeremy Dutcher, and, perhaps inevitably, Dvořák. If Yo-Yo has grown tired of performing Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor (1894), he showed no signs of it in his exuberant performance at Roy Thomson Hall on November 16th.
Yo-Yo Ma has long maintained a special connection with Toronto. From his early years, when several notable Canadians, including Morawetz, gave him some of his earliest big breaks, through his later collaborations with local filmmakers (including Atom Egoyan) on the Yo-Yo Ma: Inspired By Bach series, Yo-Yo has an avowed loved for our city which shows no signs of abating. It was only fitting, then, that his guest appearance here served as the capstone of the TSO’s hundredth anniversary celebrations.
The program got off to an appropriate start with Morawetz’s Carnival Overture (1945), a sparkling, energetic piece infused with musical elements from Morawet’s native Czechoslovakia. The Overture was followed by another crowd-pleaser, Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (1960), which the TSO performed with aplomb.
The real crowd-pleaser, of course, was Yo-Yo himself, taking over the second half of the evening, beginning with an intriguing collaboration with Jeremy Dutcher. Multi-hyphenate Dutcher has deservedly built a reputation for himself as one of Canada’s most interesting musical ambassadors. Dutcher’s works, including Wednesday evening’s Honour Song, combine classical European and Indigenous musical themes and structures to create something new and exciting.
Yo-Yo Ma has been performing the Dvořák, aka The Cello Concerto (sorry, Elgar) since his debut as a child prodigy in the 1960s. Dvořák’s masterpiece is one of the crowning achievements in the history of classical music, and Yo-Yo Ma one of its foremost interpreters. From its melodic opening movement, which concludes on such a climactic, grandiose fortissimo that audiences can be forgiven for mistaking it for the finale (on Wednesday, Yo-Yo actually winked when half the audience erupted in premature applause), through its lyrical second movement, with its languorous but no-less-technically-demanding Adagio theme, and on through the climax in the Rondo, the Dvořák – and Yo-Yo – never cease to impress.
Even after all that, there was room left for one more, an encore so genuinely impromptu that Yo-Yo had already put his Stradivarius away and had to borrow the “lowly” 1780 Paolo Castello cello of principal cellist Joseph Johnson. For his solo encore, Yo-Yo selected El cant dels ocells (“song of the birds”) a traditional Catalan folk song popularized by cellist Pabo Casals nearly eighty years ago. Aside from its lovely high harmonic grace notes, we can’t help but have a soft spot for a solo showcase that includes an anagram of the word “cello” within it. It was a charming note to end the evening on, ahead of cakes and sparkling in the lobby to celebrate the TSO’s birthday.
Tickets for the TSO’s 2022-2023 season can be purchased here.