Paris-born (to Chinese parents) American cellist Yo-Yo Ma has achieved the idol status among classical soloists usually limited to virtuoso pianists and show-off violinists: To a rapidly growing, adoring following, he can do no wrong. He certainly did no wrong in his Hollywood Bowl appearance Tuesday, as soloist in a contemporary (1987), mystical, soft-spoken work of 50 minutes duration, holding nearly 9,900 rapt listeners silent and spellbound during the music itself and for nearly a minute afterward as the sounds seemed to evaporate slowly into the evening chill.
The music was “The Protecting Veil” by British-born John Tavener, recent arrival in the ranks of the “holy minimalists,” composers driven to express deep spiritual matters in music that blends the silent and the barely audible into long, hypnotic gossamer strands. The much-played Third Symphony by Poland’s Henryk Gorecki, which zoomed onto classical and crossover charts several years ago via proselytizing DJs in Los Angeles and London, may have served Tavener as a model; it, too, holds its listeners spellbound for nearly an hour of near-silence.
Gorecki’s symphony creates a halo of orchestral tone around the lamenting vocal lines of a soprano soloist. Tavener’s soloist is the cellist, performing seemingly without a moment’s breath, weaving a sinuous, passionate melody into and out of the surrounding orchestral fabric (strings only), holding the stage alone midway for a cadenza that soars heavenward like a demented diva in some as-yet-uncomposed operatic mad scene, a frenzied celebrant in an exotic ritual.
Tavener claims inspiration from the chants of the Eastern Orthodox Church; his title refers to a 1,000-year-old legend wherein the Mother of God casts a veil to protect Greeks from attacking Saracens.
Yo-Yo Ma, whose recent Sony recording of Tavener’s work is its third, played as if himself entranced by the music, and seemed willing to share that spell with the audience. Before the Tavener, he had even blended his solo cello with Jeffrey Kahane’s Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in a particularly mellow version of the requisite “Star-Spangled Banner.”
Someone in the Bowl management, however, had the not particularly admirable notion to “interpret” the Tavener with a changing color pattern in the orchestra shell’s lighting, rising to a particularly garish hot magenta during the climactic cadenza. This is music capable of speaking for itself.
Concluding the concert, and the Bowl’s final classical event of the summer, Kahane led his valuable small orchestra (filled out with a contingent of stringers) in a speedy drive through Robert Schumann’s Second Symphony, not quite camouflaging the symphony’s tendency to make its points several times over but, on its own, lively and well-intended.