Austin Symphony Orchestra With Bion Tsang, Cello

The cellist swashed and buckled his way through Dvorák like a great actor playing Cyrano

En garde!: Bion Tsang
En garde!: Bion Tsang (Photo courtesy of Mark Matson)

Austin Symphony Orchestra With Bion Tsang, Cello

Dell Hall at the Long Center
March 30

The cello has been typecast as the sad sack of the symphony. When composers need a mourner, that's typically who they call, leaving many people with the impression that moaning wistfully is all the cello can do. Antonín Dvorák was one composer who saw the instrument as capable of so much more and created a virtuoso showcase for it that makes you rethink all you know about the cello, and in tackling his Cello Concerto in B Minor with the Austin Symphony Orchestra, Bion Tsang swashed and buckled his way through the work like a great actor playing Cyrano de Bergerac. Maybe it was the way in which Tsang wielded his bow that first put me in mind of Edmond Rostand's peerless swordsman – thrusting swiftly and with unerring precision into the heart of each note – but the comparison felt apt through the concerto's finale. In it, the cello has all of Cyrano's brio and valor and pluck, dashing headlong into melodic themes and executing them with a breathless panache. In a work with seeming martial aspirations – the opening sounds like it's dropping you in the middle of a battle – the cello is its soldier-hero, taking on all comers. But like Rostand's, this is also a highly romantic figure with a strong melancholy streak. Repeatedly, the cello succumbs to rueful reverie – slow, exquisitely lovely passages in which it oozes regret. Because Tsang attacked the "action sequences" with such verve and relish, it brought even richer contrast to these moments of sorrowful reflection, which ached with the loss of a dozen loves. On the podium, conductor Peter Bay devoted much of his efforts to reining in the orchestra, keeping them soft enough for Tsang's every rich note to be clearly heard. And they were heard, and deeply appreciated, too, so much so that the audience leapt to its feet in an instant for the guest soloist. It led to a quick encore of Dvorák "Humoresque No. 7" – you may know it as the tune to "Passengers will please refrain from flushing toilets on the train" – during which Tsang proved himself as adroit at comedy as romance and action. His jaunty, sly performance left the crowd grinning and no doubt hoping that his first appearance with the ASO will be followed by another sooner rather than later.

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Austin Symphony Orchestra, Bion Tsang, Peter Bay, Antonín Dvoák, Antonin Dvorak

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