Yo-Yo Ma was the big draw for Wednesday's concert in the World Cello Congress III, but he was hardly the only attraction. Also joining the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra that evening were two notable younger talents -- Wendy Warner, not yet 30, and Han-Na Chang, all of 17.
Warner started things off with Samuel Barber's Cello Concerto, a work in the composer's trademark romantic vein that doesn't entirely hold together but contains many treasurable moments. As is the case with Barber's violin and piano concertos, the second movement in particular makes the score well worth hearing. Here, the cello sings a melancholy but never morbid song that winds slowly around the heart, and Warner's finely sculpted playing made the most of the movement. Throughout, her thoughtful music-making had an admirable counterpart in the BSO's response to Yuri Falik's fluent conducting.
Chang came charging out of the gate in Saint-Saens' Cello Concerto in A minor, unafraid to sacrifice some smoothness of tone to intensify the dramatic curves of the opening theme. Her gutsy, riveting performance caught the mercurial nature of this grandly passionate work, and was tempered in all the right places by effective nuances of tone and phrasing.
Falik gave the soloist fully attentive support and coaxed colorful, polished playing from the ensemble. He turned the podium over to Hugh Wolff, music director of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, for Ma's portion of the program, which included the U.S. premiere of Peter Lieberson's "The Six Realms," an intermittently arresting piece completed nine days earlier and given its world premiere in Toronto on May 24.
American-born, Halifax-based Lieberson is a practicing Tibetan Buddhist, which may help explain the concept of the new work. It attempts to depict six realms of physical and psychological consciousness -- sorrow, anger, hungry ghost, animal, human and the divine.
Most realms are easily heard in the music: The ominous beat of the timpani and occasional tolling of a bell convey sadness pretty clearly; percussion- and brass-fueled outbursts put the anger across; a snarling tuba could be any number of beasts. A plaintive prayer-like passage seems to herald the godly realm, though the cello's whispery, questioning, long-held high note at the end suggests that this is not an easily attainable heaven.
Lieberson's style includes plenty of dissonance, yet has a strong lyrical streak beneath. If only it all added up to a more original voice -- too much of the thickly orchestrated score sounds dated. And while the cello writing is certainly accomplished and well-suited to Ma's virtuosity, the instrument does not get enough memorable material. It seems to be wandering through those six realms in search of something distinctive to say.
Though he has hardly lived with the music long, Ma's performance displayed exceptional conviction and poise.
Wolff also had the material well in hand, and the BSO dug into it forcefully. Even more impressive was the arrangement of Tchaikovsky's familiar Andante cantabile from the String Quartet No. 1, which found Ma pouring out a glowing tone and exceedingly elegant phrases, with the subtlest possible backing from conductor and ensemble.