Ma worship runneth over

LENOX — If Tanglewood had two Ozawa Halls with adjoining lawns, it would probably have filled both sets of facilities with the massive crowd that showed up for its Schubert concert Thursday night, spilling over into parking spaces seldom if ever used before for an Ozawa Hall concert.

Schubert? Did somebody mention Schubert?

The main attraction, of course, wasn't the composer. Think Yo-Yo Ma. Then think Yo-Yo Ma again. He played in the two principal pieces, and two more unlike performances would be hard to imagine. He also ignited a wild ovation merely by his first entrance, and an ever wilder one at the concert's end.

With Emanuel Ax, his frequent partner and the organizer of the "Schubert's Summer Journey" series, at the piano, Ma first toyed with the "Arpeggione" Sonata (so named for the obsolete stringed instrument for which it was originally written). The cellist darted this way and that, teased melodies and stretched tempos and rhythms like rubber bands, never settling down in any unified conception.

A great show, but it was almost as if he was bored with the piece - which he has a right to be, considering the dozens of times he must have played it. Ax was the firm rock from which the cellist launched his flights.

When violinist Pamela Frank joined the two men for the Piano Trio No. 2 at the end, everything changed. Long absent from Tanglewood because of illness, she returned as a wonderful artist in her own right and an utterly natural chamber-music partner. Theirs was a deeply considered performance of a darkly mysterious work.

Happy or sad? You never knew because joy and sorrow become one in the music, just as three different musical personalities merged into one in the endlessly revealing performance. The march-like tread of the andante took on the force of tragedy, while the rhythmic stomp in the succeeding scherzando brought smiles to the faces of the music and players alike. No wonder Schubert brings the andante's tragic music back again and again at the end. Extraordinary.

Three short pieces opened the program. Frank and Ax teamed to make elegance of Schubert's pleasantries in the Sonatina No. 1. Nico Muhly and John Harbison contributed Schubert-inspired songs, each in a world premiere. Thoughtfully accompanied by Ax, each was sung by a Tanglewood Music Center student well-schooled in the art of projecting the sound and meaning of a vocal score.

Muhly's "Good Night," based partly on a Schubert text and sung by bass-baritone William Socolof, fell somewhere between the lieder tradition and a pop ballad. Harbison's "Poem," setting a haunting poem by Louise Gl ck, captured its tender passions with the emotion of a Schubert love song given a modern turn. Mezzo-soprano Kelly Newberry sang.

Thinking more about Ma: He can't help being who he is (and why should he?). And in a time when passions run high for far less worthy causes, it's good that people get worked up over a fine cellist. Yet the principle, which he well knows, bears repeating: The artist is there to serve music, not the other way around.                                                                                                                             

And let's not talk about the traffic jam afterward.


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