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Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Modes of Expression: Yo-Yo Ma, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Dutoit. 10.20.16

Modes of Expression: Yo-Yo Ma, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Dutoit. 10.20.16

 Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Dutoit conducting, with Yo-Yo Ma. Robert Torres photograph.

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Charles Dutoit conducting, with Yo-Yo Ma. Robert Torres photograph.

Of the modes of artistic expression, music stands out for its ability to be shaped. Few musicians shape it as actively as Yo-Yo Ma.

In his hands, Edward Elgar’s emotional concerto, performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Charles Dutoit Thursday evening at Symphony Hall, renewed its special place in the repertory.

The concerto begins almost cadenza-like, with the soloist making three forays into the principal melody. The orchestra responds with fragments—almost as if the cellist were trying to teach the melody to the ensemble. It makes for a perfect Yo-Yo moment: leaning over to various sections, listening in, commenting on his instrument.

Obvious physical interest in the music-making of his fellows has always characterized Yo-Yo’s performances, and this was no different. Dutoit as well, who spent much time surveying his soloist, and guiding the ensemble accordingly, contributed to the atmosphere of collegiality.

Taking chances is another trait that brings Yo-Yo’s playing out into the audience. Perhaps his grand gestures—leaning away from his instrument while concluding a phrase, grandly Romantic flourishes with his bow—strike some onstage as over-emoting. But he brings all the potential excesses in the score alive.

Those excesses can lead to the partially bowed notes, way up in thumb position, before the improbably long pause that led to the Adagio. Risks with only partial success like that remind listeners of several things: this music is hard, and approaching it like Yo-Yo does can be rewarding in unexpected ways. 

The concerto is remarkable as a soloist-oriented work. Sure there are orchestral moments, but sporadic ones. The winds come alive in the finale. The horns act only for shading. Percussion? Hardly discernible.

Contrasts in the work also make it great. Melodies are sweet, and emotionally draining. But the scherzo, a common time, sixteenth-note gambit, extends a hand toward fancy and wry wit. With Yo-Yo the principal greeter, both orchestra and audience felt compelled to participate.

The all-English program began with William Walton’s non-stop flurry of an overture, “Portsmouth Point.” A spirited, all-forte, multi-rhythmic blast of energy, it creates its sonic character with unusual doublings (strings/piccolo, at one point). 

After intermission, Dutoit investigated Holst’s venerable “Planets.” Strong in character, each of the celestial movements speaks in its own voice. The work’s strengths—the unusual march, buttressed in the strings with the melody in the horns, in “Mars”; the anthemic quality of “Jupiter”; the simple duet across the stage between the basses and the harps in “Saturn,” quickly followed by a richly complicated contrapuntal section sweeping through the winds—all these make “Planets” believable and interesting. 

The orchestra, as always, responded alertly to Dutoit, a clear favorite on the Symphony Hall stage.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra performs music of Walton, Elgar and Holst, Friday at 1:30 p.m., Saturday and Tuesday at 8 p.m. 888-266-1200; bso.org

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