So many excellent soloists play on the classical circuit nowadays that it’s possible to forget what a truly great performer sounds like.

Tuesday evening’s concert at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis provided a sharp reminder, with cellist Yo-Yo Ma making his first Minnesota Orchestra appearance in 15 years.

Now in his 60s, Ma retains a fresh, boyish demeanor. He unassumingly wended his way to his soloist seat on the stage, swapping small talk with conductor Osmo Vänskä along the way.

The concert’s centerpiece was Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C, a piece that can quickly turn pedestrian in the hands of an average player.

But Ma’s performance was mesmerizing. He applied a formidable range of touch and nuance to the solo part, with scarcely a bar of music where he didn’t have some subtle point to make. The playing was technically brilliant, though never crudely self-advertising.

It was also notably emotional.

Ma’s singing tone wrung considerable poignancy from the sweet adagio, and carved deliciously elegant contours in the opening moderato movement.

He took obvious pleasure in the crisp, incisive contributions of the Minnesota Orchestra, smiling broadly at concertmaster Erin Keefe at one point, with solo entries that seemed to grow organically from his interactions with the players.

Ma’s fabulously elastic bowing arm was hard at work in the hyperactive finale, where his double-stopping bit hard without turning ugly, and his finger speed made light of Haydn’s dizzyingly difficult writing.

Warmth, joy and generosity suffused the Haydn concerto, as they did with Ma’s post-intermission performance of Dvorák’s “Silent Woods,” a brief paean to nature’s beauty.

Ma’s Dvorák highlighted the deep-laid vein of poetry that has always informed his playing, drawing a prolonged (and well-merited) standing ovation from the full-capacity crowd.

At first Ma tried to deflect attention to Vänska and his players, but he eventually capitulated to the acclamation, fist-pumping the air as he left the platform.

To Vänskä and the orchestra’s credit, the three other items on the program didn’t feel like afterthoughts.

The concert opened with a strong, vigorous account of “The Moldau” from Smetana’s “Má Vlast,” the Czech composer’s cycle of patriotic tone poems. The orchestra’s performance boasted succulent phrasing of the main violin theme and a particularly jaunty dance section.

Mendelssohn’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture” was a touch hard-driven, but the orchestra compensated with boldly prominent bursts of brass detail — no doubt to spotlight the presence of a braying ass in Shakespeare’s Athenian forest.

The concert closed with a rich and colorful performance of Liszt’s combustible symphonic poem “Les Préludes.” Amid the percussion slams and heavy brass artillery there was delicacy, too, especially in the pliantly expressive phrasing of the cello section.

Vänskä shaped Liszt’s music thrillingly.

Ma was undoubtedly the star attraction, but many other musical satisfactions were on offer Tuesday.


Terry Blain writes about classical music and theater.