Ma plays cello concerto by Albert with nobility


Cellist Yo-Yo Ma returned to Meyerhoff Hall last night for a reprise of the concerto the late Stephen Albert wrote for him three years ago.

Albert, who died in an automobile crash in December, was one of our best and most honest composers. Though there are nods in the directions of other pieces from other times -- late Romantic concertos in the first and third movements, a little Shostakovich in the skittish second movement and some middle-period Stravinsky in the final one -- there is not a cheap note in this piece. It is garbed in its own, not in borrowed garments. Commissioning it is is one of the best things that the Baltimore Symphony has done in David Zinman's tenure as music director.

The performance that Ma, Zinman and the BSO gave was passionate and intense. Ma knows the piece much better than he did when he performed it here in 1990. The emotions of the soulful opening, for example, sounded less studied; the flying scherzo sounded more fearless; and the entire piece had a conviction and a coherence that I do not remember hearing in 1990 and do not hear on a tape made at that time.

It is gratifying to report that Ma, the orchestra and Zinman will record the work this weekend.

They will also record the other two works that Ma played last night -- Bartok's Viola Concerto, which the cellist played on what is called the vertical viola, and Bloch's "Schelomo."

Ma is currently seeking to expand his instrument's repertory and had planned to play the Bartok in a transcription for cello. That version has already been recorded by Janos Starker and the St. Louis Symphony, and Ma wisely realized that the cello's sound is not appropriate for it.

Unfortunately, the cellist does not yet seem comfortable playing the piece on the vertical viola -- an enlarged viola with a long pin that makes it possible to be placed on the floor and bowed like a cello. The second movement was genuinely beautiful -- this instrument, which was designed by Carleen Hutchins about 30 years ago, makes it possible to play low notes with greater penetration and power than on conventional violas. In the first and second movements, however, Ma did not make the notes fly with the necessary ferocity. If he wants to expand the cello's scope, he would be wise to look elsewhere, leaving the the viola to violists.

Bloch's "Schelomo" was played persuasively by the soloist and the orchestra, though not with the soulful intensity Ma has brought to this work in the past.

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