LENOX — In our historic times, when political power in America is being wrenched from its democratic base; norms and conventions of civilization, such as decency, empathy and honesty, are being ground into the dirt; and a slow-motion coup, begun 25 years ago, has almost completely succeeded in taking over our government and our courts; when the European world order is under attack; when our very existence on this planet is threatened by greed, self-interest, and deliberately feigned ignorance, we are in need of heroes. Not military heroes, or even political ones, but heroes who represent the best of humanity, heroes who can remind us of our highest values.
Yo-Yo Ma, who performed the Elgar Cello Concerto on Sunday afternoon at Tanglewood, is one of those heroes.
Modest, self-effacing, generous, broad-minded and supremely gifted, he has devoted his life to improving the world — not just by playing his cello, but by bringing the world together. Twenty-four years ago, he founded the Silkroad Ensemble (now under the leadership Rhiannon Giddens), a nonprofit organization that brings vastly disparate people together to share music, art and ideas. The group also publishes books and documentaries and runs extensive educational initiatives.
While his albums include all the classical cello repertoire — Bach, Beethoven, Barber, Britten, Dvorák, Elgar, Haydn, Saint-Saëns, Schumann, Shostakovich and Vivaldi — he has also performed and recorded American folk and bluegrass, Argentine tangos, music from Brazil, a pop album, and Japanese and traditional Chinese song melodies. Collaborations across genres include those with Bobby McFerrin, Chris Thile, Chris Botti, and James Taylor. His reach is both local and global. During COVID he played at the vaccination center in Pittsfield and created homemade performance videos that were available around the world.
It is hard to believe, but Mr. Ma is now in his mid-60s. He must have played the Elgar Cello Concerto countless times, and yet, whenever he performs (and, indeed, whatever he performs), he lights up the world. It is as though the beauty of the music is newly wonderful to him. As Shakespeare said, in a completely different context: “His spirit shines through him.”
The Elgar Cello Concerto was composed in the immediate shadow of the First World War. It was the composer’s last important work. The Cello Concerto is lyrical, introspective, and occasionally deeply melancholic. Unlike most traditional concertos, it is in four movements, the first opening with a chordal declaration on all four strings of the solo cello, a declaration that returns towards the end of the whole piece. Multiple tempo changes create a rhapsodic feel throughout, allowing the conductor and soloist great flexibility.
Mr. Ma demonstrated the special powers of his musicianship: a lovely tone, fluent phrasing, and great expressive depth. When he plays, he seems to be in touch with a different, more spiritual world. With over 9,000 people in attendance — nearly 5,000 in The Shed alone — were mesmerized. As an encore he sat at the last desk of the cello section and joined in with that group’s rendition of “Smile,” the touching song whose music was composed by Charlie Chaplin, in an arrangement for cellos by the principal cellist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Blaise Déjardin.
Tanglewood’s Sunday concert began with a short composition from 2013 by the English-born composer Anna Clyne, who now lives in the Hudson Valley. Her “Masquerade” has the style and sound of old English music hall, a little like the nostalgic sounds on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” It is a noisily delightful aperitif.
Debussy’s “La Mer” comes from before the First War, having been composed in 1905. It is written for an enormous orchestra, which is used to portray all the various shifting moods of the sea. The orchestra, led by the Romanian conductor Cristian Macelaru, who was a Tanglewood Music Center Fellow in 2012, and who was making his impressive debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, excelled at the contrasting colors and dynamics of this remarkable work, which was inspired both by the great sea paintings of J. M. W. Turner from the first half of the 19th century and by the famous Japanese print of a great curling wave, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” made in 1831 by the artist Hokusai.
The final work of the concert was also composed in the early 20th century. This was the “Romanian Rhapsody No. 1” by the Romanian composer George Enescu from 1901, written when he was 19 years old. It was inspired by Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsodies,” which was the forebear of many national rhapsodies, a flexible succession of a series of folk tunes and dances from a specific country or region. In this captivating performance, drinking songs, circle dances, sad melodies, and folk songs mingled with bird song until they accelerated into the manic ending. The Romanian conductor infused this work with a special flair.MUSIC REVIEWWhat: Cristian Măcelaru conducts Anna Clyne, Elgar, Debussy, and Enescu featuring Yo-Yo Ma, cello
When: Sunday, Aug. 14
Where: Koussevitzky Music Shed, Tanglewood, Lenox