Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor, written between 1894 and 1895, was the last concerto he wrote and perhaps the most private. In the last two movements, Dvořák inserted an emblem (a lyric from the German Lied Lasst mich allein) for his sister-in-law who fell ill and died before the concerto premiered. In the hands of Yo-Yo Ma, this work was beyond intimate while being unassumingly genial.

Yo-Yo Ma © Jason Bell
Yo-Yo Ma
© Jason Bell

Before Ma took the stage, the Houston Symphony performed Gershwin’s An American in Paris, a repeat from their concert just last week. The tempos felt a little slower this time around, but the ensemble had pulled together more tightly with the piece now firmly in the symphony’s wheelhouse. And watching artistic director and conductor Andrés Orozco-Estrada weave in the same patterns through the transitions proved his consistency as much as his enthusiasm for a good turn of phrase. 

But Gershwin was merely an opening act for Dvořák. In terms of his life, the concerto came during a period of success in America. In 1892, Dvořák accepted a position at the National Conservatory of Music in America with a salary that made his Prague Conservatory income look like pennies. About a year later, in 1893, he premiered his wildly successful “From the New World” Ninth Symphony. The story goes that he didn’t think a cello could carry as a solo instrument with big orchestration, but after hearing his colleague Victor Herbert’s cello concerto, he thought he’d venture a try. 

Ma is many things on stage, but he is first an amiable and generous collaborator. He walked out with a warm smile, full of ease and openness. The audience has to wait about four minutes of orchestral introduction before the soloist breaks into the first movement, the Allegro, with fervor. And from the moment the multiple Grammy-winning cellist set bow to string, he bestowed the hall with fluid largesse. 

As a soloist, Ma is a series of small paradoxes. Ma brings both a personal and inclusive energy where one moment, he will smile with his eyes shut and the next, he will lean down to the first violin stand as though to share a joke. His cello acted like a seamless extension of his body during the lush Adagio, ma non troppo, when lyrics glided ethereally into the hall, but also like a independent object that Ma could have a lively conversation with when it suited the mood, like when he flung an arpeggio off his fingerboard with a popped open palm hitting the air. 

While the concerto hosts classic virtuoso passages and great symphonic responses, the work is also intimate by nature in its actual construction, offering many duets with the soloist. An early chamber passage in the first moment, between the flute and Ma, was a fluid shift from soloist grandeur to a partnership. Later, when the violin took a turn, both timbres intertwined like old friends.

While passion, supreme technical mastery, and inspiration all come to mind watching a celebrity like Ma perform, camaraderie, perhaps, is the best word for this concert. You expect something special from a world-renowned artist like Ma, but experiencing his supreme talent in the flesh is the stuff of legends. That said, remarkably, he also reminds you that he is human. During his many curtain calls and a standing ovation, Ma hugged everyone in the inner circle of the symphony, gripping Orozco-Estrada’s hand in his all the while and holding it high above their heads – a symbol of accord as much as it was mutual respect.