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Review: Placido Domingo and Yo-Yo Ma together for the first time

August 26, 2009 |  3:00 pm


Yo-Yo Ma and Plácido Domingo are irrepressible collaborating animals. A list of artists in many disciplines and from the vast array of cultures with whom they have worked could probably fill a phone book for a mid-size town in Iowa.

There may not be much important repertory for cello and tenor, but Domingo is also a conductor, and sooner or later these two ever-eager superstars simply had to perform together. That finally happened Tuesday night at the Hollywood Bowl. Ma was soloist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Dvorák’s Cello Concerto, and Domingo stood on the podium.

The place was packed. The concert started 20 minutes late because of Bowl gridlock. Before beginning, Domingo, who has recently shaved his beard, turned to peer at the sell-out crowd, displayed an avuncular smile and happily announced that this was also his first time conducting the L.A. Philharmonic and his first time conducting at the Bowl. Ma beamed as he always does onstage. The huge video screens took it all in.

Such events typically turn into circuses. Incredibly, this one didn’t. Ma’s playing was riveting, and the audience was remarkable. A mass of humanity -- capacity is 17,374 -- listening intently is a rare,
extraordinary occurrence.

Ma, no doubt, has played the Dvorák, the most popular of all cello concertos, several hundred times too many. But the full Bowl was an obvious energizer. And he had what was probably an unusual challenge for a soloist used to playing with the world’s top conductors.

Domingo, who is used to singing with the world’s top conductors, has gained increasing competence in the opera pit. Last month, he conducted “Carmen” at the outdoor Arena di Verona in Italy, and he conducts next season at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and the Washington National Opera. But he is less experienced leading symphony concerts, and he doesn’t even include orchestral works in the extensive repertory list on his website.

YoYo-and-Placido Ma owned the Dvorák on Tuesday, and that was as it should be. He is always a gregarious cellist, making eye contact with other players. This time, he had Domingo mainly in his sights, and he gave lyric melodies in particular a winning singing quality, while his dramatic playing had magnificent operatic urgency.  

Traipsing up and down the musical (and the physical) Silk Road over the last decade has surely helped liberate Ma's playing. The other impression the cellist gave was of making Dvorák up as he went along. I’ve sometimes found Ma growing stale in standard repertory in recent years. Here he was fresh, free and wide awake.

Domingo, though, never really interacted with his soloist. He followed when the cellist played, and that was fine. Otherwise, Domingo enforced a kind of all-purpose fervor that did no harm. The real collaboration came when Ma and concertmaster Martin Chalifour magnificently egged each other on during a violin/cello duo in the Finale.

After intermission, Domingo conducted Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, and he had a unique qualification to do so. If there is another singer who has performed leading roles in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin” and “The Queen of Spades” and who has also conducted the composer’s symphonies, I’ve never heard of it.

But Domingo is oddly uncomfortable on the podium in symphonic works, especially for an opera star who can be an effective actor and who appears supremely comfortable in his own skin on the lyric stage. On the podium, Domingo’s body movements are oddly awkward. His beat can’t be easy to follow.

Domingo did get a certain amount of expressive playing in the symphony, and he could be plenty forceful when he needed to be. He was not eccentric; neither was he individual in pacing or phrasing. There were important details in the strings I couldn’t hear, and there were uncertain phrase endings in the Andante.

But mainly what I missed was a Domingo sound. For that, we must turn to the second of the encores after the Dvorák. The first was a traditional Mongolian cello solo played in a state of transfixing rapture by Ma. Then, Domingo sang Massenet’s “Elegy,” with Ma accompanying. Once he found the tenor button in his brain and, after a couple of phrases, turned it on, Domingo was once more Domingo.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and conductor Plácido Domingo performing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl on Tuesday night.  Credit: Gernaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (7)

Having felt so lucky to see two living legends on the same stage yesterday, I was riveted and utterly touched by YO YO MA's interpretation of Dvorak's Cello Concerto, but I was utterly swept by his solo after the concerto's conclusion. My response was one of tearful emotion, inspired by seeing Mr. Ma grossly enraptured by the musical piece he played, one he had the sole charge of breating life into, or as if it were a fragile, delicate bird which he would have to launch into successful flight from it's nesting place. He was not on the same plane as his audience, rather he appeared to have been taken, transported with his instrument to a parrellel plane, musical heaven, and we were so fortunate to see the phenomena. And how beautifully Domingo conducted, and how wonderful that Ma and Domingo anticipated the audiences longing to see them perform together,using their primary gifts to be shared with us, voice and cello. It is a concert I will never forget, and boast about as there will never be one just like it again!

Does anyone know which Solo did Mr. Ma played on Tuesday concert?

Both encores are mentioned in the last paragraph of Mr. Swed review above: first, a traditional Mongolian tune (according to at least one knowledgeable source, it is called "Summer in the High Grassland") played by Yo-Yo alone, and then, Elegy by Jules Massenet in which he was joined by Placido.

What about the dramatic pause just after the big Dominant Chord (BEFORE the home-stretch in the Tchaikovsky), when about a third of the audience thought the piece was over, and burst into wild applause?

What about it? This was not the first time it happened and i am sure it won't be the last. When thousands of people come to a concert not for musical reasons but mostly because they want to see their favorite superstars and because this is a hot ticket to obtain, the average level of the audience's musical sophistication goes down practically by definition. It is unfortunate, but it is still better than not attending any concerts at all.

Yeah, I guess. It was still pretty funny, though.

The concert was really wonderful. All of the musicians seemed in top form. We really enjoyed it.
Yo Yo and Placido will be singing at Sen. Kennedy's funeral mass tomorrow. How did that request come about? Did they know he had died when they performed Elegy Tuesday night?


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