The Albany Symphony Orchestra opened the New Year Saturday night at the Palace Theatre with an iconic program that thrilled the capacity crowd.
Of course, as music director David Alan Miller pointed out, you can’t go wrong when the evening is a fundraiser/gala with one of the most famous cellists on the planet: Yo-Yo Ma. He got to play two pieces.
But the evening began with something the orchestra is known for: A world premiere this time by Clint Needham called “Everyday Life.” Needham said his inspiration came from his three young children and indeed, the work was full of a boisterous energy, sunny harmonies, and strongly accented rhythms.
Needham knows how to orchestrate with clarity and his use of the orchestra’s various colors was impressive. The orchestra set a perky groove through the quickly fanciful sections yet had good control in the shimmery colors of the more lyrical inner passages.
Ma then performed John Williams’ “Elegy,” which he initially wrote in 1997 for cello and piano but in 2002 revised for Ma with orchestra. The cello’s sad and poignant line was meant to memorialize the deaths of a colleague’s two young children and, as such, Ma played the notes with much feeling. While the orchestration is very transparent, it acts as a support for the cello, which sings the melody.
Ma stayed in the soft to medium ranges, which forced the players to keep levels down. Although Miller was very supportive and kept those balances clean, the players didn’t always sound so sure.
They were completely confident in Brahms’ charming “Variations on a Theme by Haydn” (1873). The 10 variations showed off Brahms’ masterful talent and imagination in one of his most buoyant moods. Miller set excellent tempos, kept the balances even, gave the lovely lyrical phrases plenty of lift and bounce and allowed the players to sparkle. Dynamic ranges were more subtle than assertive and the pace flowed along lovingly.
Ma returned to perform Dvorak’s romantic and very difficult Cello Concerto in B minor (1893). After a long and dramatic orchestral introduction, Ma made his initial statements forcefully. Later in the first movement, he explored the softer regions to finely etch out the lines. Miller followed along to keep the balances tight. The orchestra sounded terrific in the outer two movements, which made for a real collaboration.
Ma was involved and for some of the intense technical sections he put his head close to the cello’s neck and dug in to play streams of double stops or to sing the phrases with passion. He was very eloquent.
The second movement, in which the cello embroiders the orchestral line, seemed more personally expressed and Ma was more subdued and thoughtful. But the finale with its martial theme and vigorous rhythms had zip and drive.
The audience responded heartily and there were plenty of kisses and hugs between Ma and Miller. But even after many curtain calls, there was no encore, probably because Ma had a reception to rush off to. The next concert is Feb. 9-10 with pianist Yefim Bronfman.