When Placido Domingo and Yo-Yo Ma decided to give a concert together at the Hollywood Bowl, the question was whether they would fill the 17,374-seat behemoth of an amphitheater. But given this convergence of two of classical music’s biggest fanbases, the sold-out sign was on. The Hollywood Freeway was impossibly jammed, forcing a delay in the start of the concert.
It was Domingo’s Bowl debut as a conductor, and his first joint appearance with Ma anywhere — and even Bowl veterans had trouble recalling the last time they saw a sellout on a normally sedate Classical Tuesday night here.
For the indomitably versatile Domingo, this was a rare venture into the symphonic repertoire; previously, he had conducted only operas and the Verdi Requiem in this city. For Ma — whose popularity is such that Sony Masterworks plans in October to release a 90-CD boxed set of everything he’s done — it was a return to the center of the cello repertoire after years of shooting out in several global directions.
With this massive audience in mind, the two superstars served up a larger-than-life rendition of the Dvorak Cello Concerto. Ma played to the gallery, as it were, with beaming smiles, phrasing with vigorous thrusts while sacrificing some beauty in tone and looking intently at individual soloists within the Los Angeles Philharmonic as he interacted with them. Domingo coaxed a forceful, weighty accompaniment from the Philharmonic, producing orchestral climaxes of almost Verdian thunder and huge organ-like sonorities in the second movement. One would scarcely guess from this performance that the concerto was written by a Czech.
Inevitably, there were encores — with a surprise. First Ma played a sample from his Silk Road adventures, a droning Mongolian tune, “Summer in the High Grassland.” Then, to the crowd’s delight, Domingo sang Massenet’s Elegy beautifully, with only Ma’s weaving cello as backing.
Back on the podium, Domingo continued to enforce a heavyweight sound in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5. Yet aside from a few swooning ritards, Domingo displayed a straightforward command of the piece, with currents of spontaneous electricity as the second movement swept to its second climax, and a firm pulse anchoring the third movement’s waltz.
Credit Domingo and Ma for aiming relatively high — not with an easy evening of pops and crossover but with two serious, lengthy, 19th century classical staples. Yet the moment to remember was the intimate dialogue on Elegy between the great tenor and the great cellist for three magical minutes.