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Yo-Yo Ma’s Masterful Journey Through Shostakovich: An Unforgettable BSO Concert

Yo-Yo Ma plays both "Cello Concerto No. 1" and "Cello Concerto No. 2" by Shostakovich with Andris Nelsons and the BSO.
Yo-Yo Ma plays both "Cello Concerto No. 1" and "Cello Concerto No. 2" by Shostakovich with Andris Nelsons and the BSO. By Courtesy of Winslow Townson
By Dailan Xu, Contributing Writer

On Oct. 14, under the majestic golden light of Symphony Hall, classical music enthusiasts were taken on a nostalgic journey by the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), led by conductor Andris Nelsons, and the internationally renowned cellist and Harvard alum Yo-Yo Ma ’76. The evening featured the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, including “Cello Concerto No. 1” and “Cello Concerto No. 2,” and Ma, with his deeply masterful and emotional artistry, reminded the audience of music’s universal ability to console and empower.

After the BSO performed Haydn’s “Symphony No.22 in E-Flat, ‘The Philosopher’” Ma commenced his performance with a poignant statement, contextualizing Shostakovich’s piece within the historical backdrop of the Cold War in the 1960s, while also shedding light on the tragic victims of Stalin’s reign.

“This piece is as relevant today as it was then,” said Ma. “Because I believe the reason we performed the piece is to contradict something that we believe Stalin said, which is ‘one death is a tragedy; one million deaths is a statistic.’ Now, that is a divide between head and heart that I think Shostakovich was able to unite. I think Shostakovich’s artistic truth was to represent the voice of the voiceless.”

After his brief introduction, Ma sat down with his cello, and the sound that emerged from the touch of the strings conveyed a profound sadness, a plaintive cry, and a mournful moan. Ma’s face, ladened with struggle and pain, melted into the melody of the orchestra’s strings and horns. The audience could hear Ma gasping for air, and some even involuntarily breathed together with him. Ma’s performance united every listener, his bow and breath creating a universal experience. Even in silence, his eyes conveyed the character’s inner struggle. Ma spoke through his cello, an emotional language in Shostakovich’s notes.

Another astonishing feature of Ma’s performance and Shostakovich’s music was how they evoked vivid imagery in the audience’s mind, as if one were watching a silent film with a montage. For instance, the strings seemed to depict a scene of a snowy winter and its desolateness. There were also moments that the orchestra portrayed vividly: The tempo of the woodwinds and the harp portrayed a joyful dance, while the fast tempo of the strings seemed to mimic galloping hooves.

At the end of the “Cello Concerto No. 2,” Ma closed his eyes and leaned his body forward as he stretched the final note across the hall, leaving the audience spellbound.

What is especially unique about live concerts is that it can only be experienced in the moment. This particular performance became even more memorable when, in the last few minutes, Ma broke a string and seamlessly switched cellos with BSO Principal cellist Blaise Déjardin without interrupting the music. This incident highlighted Ma’s dedication to the performance, demonstrating that not even a flaw in the instrument could contain his passion. The packed audience responded with a standing ovation. Ma and the BSO cello section concluded the night with the addition of Shostakovich’s “Prelude,” arranged by French cellist Gautier Capuçon that had a soulful Russian tune.

All in all, through his profound interpretation of Shostakovich’s compositions and unwavering faith in music as a conduit for communication, Ma truly moved the audience, bestowing compassion, understanding, and humanity upon a world in need.

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