The Red Velvet Ball is always a festive occasion, with the musicians decked out even more formally than usual (“don’t they look great?” asked Mr. Robertson as he took the podium). There were a fair number of formal gowns and tuxes in the audience as well. A spirit of jolly good humor pervaded the evening, with Mr. Ma often exchanging smiles with Mr. Robertson and the symphony musicians and Mr. Robertson doing a bit of clowning about on the podium.
That’s not to say that the performances were anything less than polished. It’s just that everyone was clearly having a good time, and the feeling was contagious.
The two big events of the evening were cello concertos by Haydn and Saint-Saëns. They represented a nice balance of styles and showed Mr. Ma's talents nicely.
The first was Haydn's "Concerto No. 1" in C major, Hob. VIIb/1. It's an early work, written somewhere around 1761-65 (when Haydn was in his 30s) and apparently intended for Haydn's friend Joseph Franz Weigl, who was the principal cellist of Prince Nicolaus's Esterházy Orchestra. Judging from the difficulty of the solo part, Weigl must have been quite the virtuoso. He might also have played the ensemble cello part as well since the score has only one cello line, marked either "solo" or "tutti," depending on the cello’s role.
Mr. Ma played both the tutti and solo lines with fleetness and lightness of tone that perfectly matched the material. Mr. Robertson’s tempi were a bit on the slow side for my taste but as this was “big band” Haydn, I could see the logic in that approach. Certainly the audience loved it, applauding after each movement and standing at the end.
The second (and longer) solo work was another "Cello Concerto No. 1". This one, in A minor, is the Op. 33 of the prolific French romantic master Camille Saint-Saëns. Like Haydn, Saint-Saëns was in his 30s when he wrote this in 1872. Also like Haydn, he wrote it for a specific performer: the Belgian cellist, viola de gamba player, author, and instrument maker Auguste Tolbecque. This, too, is a work that demands a great deal from the soloist—which makes it very popular with top-drawer soloists like Mr. Ma.
Mr. Ma and Mr. Robertson played the Saint-Saëns for maximum contrast and drama. Mr. Ma’s sound was big and lush when the music led him there, yet wonderfully delicate in the little minuet-like melody of the central “Allegretto con moto” section. Here, as in the Haydn, Mr. Ma interacted not just with the conductor but with members of the orchestra as well, often nodding and smiling to concertmaster David Halen. This is a man who clearly loves what he does, and that’s always a pleasure to see on stage.
Each of Mr. Ma’s solo appearances was preceded by a popular overture. Before the Haydn we got the overture to Franz von Suppé’s 1866 operetta "Leichte Kavallerie" ("Light Cavalry") and before the Saint-Saëns the overture to "Zampa," an 1831 opéra comique by French composer Louis Joseph Ferdinand Hérold.
Some fine playing by the brasses—including principal trumpet Karen Bliznik—highlighted the former, while principal clarinet Scott Andrews had a fine solo turn in the latter. Mr. Robertson conducted both with genial flair and not a little bit of humor. When the famous “galloping” theme began in “Light Cavalry,” for example, he turned to the audience with a grin as if to say, “we all know this one, don’t we?” Yes, we do, and it was great fun.
There was one solemn moment in the evening, though. As I noted in my review of Friday’s concert, symphony contrabassoonist Andrew Thompson died suddenly this past Tuesday of a heart attack at the shockingly young age of 27. Maestro David Robertson paid homage to him Friday with a moving eulogy and a moment of silence. Saturday night, the tribute was musical: Gabriel Fauré’s 1883 "Élégie" for cello and orchestra, played by Mr. Ma just before the Saint-Saëns concerto. It was a last-minute addition to the program, but nothing about the performance sounded slapdash, and it was a moving tribute.
Although this was the fifth annual Red Velvet Ball, it was the first one I’d attended. It was immensely gratifying to see such a large turnout, especially given the higher than usual ticket prices And there is something to be said for “putting on the Ritz” now and then. Yes, I know: we don’t want to make attending the symphony seem too formal and off-putting. But it’s still fun to dress up in ways that match all that cream, red and gold décor at Powell. Besides, I don’t get that many opportunities to wear my tux these days.
This coming Wednesday (October 23) there’s a Pulitzer Concert with cellist Danny Lee and violinist Helen Kim performing Pierre Boulez’s Anthèmes for Solo Violin and Kodály‘s Sonata for Solo Cello at the Pulitzer Center just west of Powell Hall. Friday and Saturday it’s back to Powell Hall for a concert featuring Rimski-Korsakov’s Scheherazade along with the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 1 (the one with the prominent trumpet part in the final movement) and a suite of dances from Thomas Adès’s 1995 chamber opera Powder Her Face. Peter Oundjian conducts with pianist Stewart Goodyear and the symphony’s Karin Bliznik on trumpet. For ticket information: stlsymphony.org.