Mark Gresham | 14 APR 2022
Popularly known as the New World Symphony, Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 is typically the final work in a symphonic program. But on Wednesday evening, that was not the case when cellist Yo-Yo Ma was the guest artist for a one-night-only special concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra conducted by Robert Spano.
With a superstar like Ma, you want to close the concert with them because that’s who the capacity-plus audience has come to see and hear. I emphasize capacity-plus because an extended audience was outdoors on that fine spring evening on the Woodruff Arts Center’s Sifly Piazza, viewing the performance via live-streamed video. It was additionally live-streamed online at the ASO website and Facebook and YouTube channels for viewers at home.
Thus in this all-Dvořák concert, the New World Symphony was the concert’s first half, while Ma performed the composer’s Cello Concerto in the second half. A significant one-two punch of core repertoire.
This concert also deviated from the current ASO norm regarding safety requirements. Patrons of this performance were once again required to show an ID and proof of vaccination against COVID-19 or a negative test less than 48 hours old. Likewise, masks were mandatory inside the hall. According to one usher, these requirements were “at the artist’s request.” But we’ll touch briefly on that later.
Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9 is such a famous and popular work that every professional symphony musician has their own part in their back pocket, or should. That doesn’t mean that any given performance will be ordinary or exceptional. On this occasion, Spano and the ASO truly owned it. Certainly, the heightened expectations for the evening contributed, as did the presence of a packed house — the musicians onstage can feel the gathered crowd’s emotions and feed off of that. In any case, we got a thrilling ride for the duration.
During his final bow to the audience, Spano lowered his mask to acknowledge the applause with a wide grin, which immediately drew heightened cheers from the audience. He restored his mask position as he moved to exit the stage.
Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B minor is the pinnacle of concertos for cello and somewhat of a yardstick by which an aspiring prodigy is often judged to establish their credibility (and marketability). Although I would personally have preferred to hear Ma perform something more adventurous, it was still a treat to listen to a grandmaster perform it. The last time the ASO played it was in 2015, with Spano conducting and the late Lynn Harrell as soloist.
Although the orchestra felt slightly more vibrant in the New World Symphony, Ma’s playing was splendid. The communication between orchestra and soloist was felicitous, and the performance was a joy to hear.
Of course, Ma returned to the stage for an encore. He performed the “Sarabande” from J.S. Bach’s unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 6 in D major, BWV 1012, in memory of former ASO principal cellist Christopher Rex. It proved the most stunningly beautiful musical minutes of the entire evening.
But one point of non-musical interest: Ma, who had supposedly requested the increased pandemic precautions (according to the usher), lowered his mask to introduce the “Sarabande” before playing it. That’s not to mention all the direct body contact onstage during ovations after the Cello Concerto.
So one has to wonder: Was it really the artist who requested the increased health protocols? Or his management? Or someone else? Most likely, we the public will never know. It is, however, good business practice. Once a star performer gets sick for weeks, their agencies lose money. A lot of money.
Although I am personally in favor of ending most mask mandates, the brief return to masking and vaccination checks on this occasion was not all that problematic for me. I get around by public transit, so I always carry multiple masks and my vaccination card with me, just in case. And now the federal government (CDC and TSA) has moved the end of its mask mandate for airlines and public transportation to May 3.* It was previously set to expire on April 18, despite the pleas of commercial airlines to end it. At the same time, public transit like MARTA seems to be desperately clinging onto the mask mandate by its fingernails. So I stay both skeptical and ready.
No, what is far more troubling me are the new metal detectors that have been in operation at Symphony Hall for the past several months that one must now pass through from outdoors to enter the Galleria. Sure, the same problem with metal detectors is more onerous at Cobb Energy Center when trying to attend The Atlanta Opera.
I must emphasize: these are the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and The Atlanta Opera, not Astroworld.
This creates a discouragingly hostile environment for cultural enlightenment and exploration. We should not cater to the “profits of fear” (pun intended) lest we further decay the foundations of the free and open culture our civilization has long aspired to and cherished. It points to areas in which we have failed in this 21st century to maintain social and civil integrity. To quote Jiddu Krishnamurti: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” So let’s not proceed further down the path of one.
Frankly speaking, tour managers of bands and pop artists can scream all they want, but this seriously needs to end. Classical music and opera did not bring on the problem. Our Arts stand in stark contrast to it.
But if you are instead more worried about the government eliminating mask mandates, don’t fret. Surely a new COVID spike is already scheduled for the weeks before the November elections, and then you can happily put your mask back on with glee. ■
* Ed. note: The mask mandate extension to May 3rd has since been struck down by a federal court judge. The Department of Justice is filing an appeal aiming to overturn the judge’s ruling.