May 6, 2004

Ma Generation

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When Yo-Yo Ma played Ithaca on April 28th, it was my 22nd birthday. Since birthdays after 21 leave one with nothing to look forward to but car rental, presidential candidacy, and the sweet, sweet embrace of the grave, I had been drunk since noon. I didn’t even find out I was going to the concert until lunch, when my friend Miriam gave me her ticket as a birthday present. Tickets sold out instantaneously last fall and were scalped via Denice Cassaro for sums that would have been more wisely invested in paying an impoverished immigrant to play the cello in your home for the rest of your life. Ma is truly a rock star, but I get mad scene points for being into Yo-Yo before he was cool — that’s right, hipsters, I’ve been a fan since the tender age of three, when the sounds of Beethoven’s Sonata for one Dinger, two Honkers, and Cello hit my ears via the bastion of culture that is PBS’s Sesame Street. I also own three Ma CDs and a signed t-shirt from the Winterland show with Alice Cooper in ’74. As such, I was horrified by the article daze ran last week, which failed to convey any pertinent information about the concert whatsoever. Despite my inexperience in the ways of music reviewing, I have undertaken to right these wrongs. In my drunken haze, I assumed the show would be taking place at Bailey Hall, where most Cornell Concert Commission shows have happened during my career at Cornell. I arrived fifteen minutes early intending to finish my (third) bottle of wine on the steps before the show began, but was put off by all the fences and rubble and “UNDER CONSTRUCTION” signs. Figuring Ma was not planning to stage a Roger Waters-style spectacle amid the ruins of a once-potent cultural symbol, I examined my ticket for the first time and discovered that the show was taking place at the State Theater downtown. Shit. Through the magic of sober friends with cars, I made it just in time.

The Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra began the set without Ma by playing Handel’s Water Music Suite No. 1 in F major. This experience was analogous to sitting through the crappy opening band at a “real” concert, and vehemently wishing them harm. The orchestra was very competent, but Handel leaves much to be desired. As everybody who has ever played an instrument knows, F major is a key for pussies. There is all of one accidental, which makes it very easy to play — a favorite of high school marching bands across the country — and the only key signature John Philip Sousa knew how to compose in. The other thing about baroque music in general is that it tends to consist of frills and trills and little else, and Handel’s is no exception. However, the orchestra was very good, and the conductor, Ton Koopman, played the harpsichord while conducting with his head. Whoa.

Ma took the stage to thunderous applause for the 2nd piece, Vivaldi’s Cello Concerto in B-flat major. B-flat is the second pussiest key of all time after F, but Vivaldi makes up for it by being the flashiest composer this side of Franz Lizst. If baroque music is nothing but frills, Vivaldi is the dress the fat chick wore to your high school prom. If, God forbid, somebody had ripped all that ribbon and lace off her dress, you’d be reading this review in Braille right now. Vivaldi is, however, a good choice for a virtuoso like Ma, allowing him to rock out to his full potential. Ma and the Amsterdam Orchestra are currently promoting Vivaldi’s Cello, released March 30th from Sony Classical. It features the Concerto in B-flat major, as well as the Concerto in C Minor (a highly respectable key), which was played after the intermission.

The unexpected hit of the evening was Hayden’s Cello Concerto in D Major. Hayden is another baroque composer I tend to write off as a showman, but the Adagio revealed an astonishing degree of pathos — it was sort of like watching Mr. Rogers do a segment on T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland and then murdering his parents. Wow. The orchestra concluded by playing Hayden’s Symphony No. 83 in G major without Ma, which was also quite respectable.

Ma came back for a series of encores, in true rock star fashion. They were very short and I have no idea what they were — the conductor made some comments but either my blood-alcohol level or the poor acoustics in the State prevented me from comprehending them. For the grand finale, Ma smashed his million-dollar Stradivarius cello on top of the million-dollar harpsicord, downed a bottle of Jack, and left the stage. No wait, sorry, I’m thinking of President Lehman’s Call to Engagement Day.

Archived article by Erin McNellis
Red Letter Daze Contributor