Two years ago, Spanish cellist Asier Polo dazzled Manitoba Chamber Orchestra's audiences with his soulful artistry, quick-fingered virtuosity and innate ability to plunge listeners deeply into the heart of music.
The Bilbao-born musician returned to the MCO stage Wednesday night, once more wowing the sold-out crowd with two eclectic works led by Anne Manson.
The conductor first discovered Polo while conducting in Galicia in 2010, vowing to bring him to Winnipeg someday. Luckily, local music aficionados have now had two opportunities to hear the acclaimed artist in action; he makes music as easily as he breathes.
A charismatic, natural-born communicator, Polo instantly creates the sense he is playing for old friends in an intimate salon. The program opened with Vivaldi's Cello Concerto in C Minor, RV 404, with Polo, beaming ear to ear, taking the stage with his impressive 1689 Francesco Ruggieri cello -- notably, the same age as the three-movement baroque work. Somewhat surprisingly, he also had a printed score in tow, albeit rarely made reference to it.
The first movement Allegro non molto showcased his bravura technique while the Adagio displayed his ability to sustain an evocative mood. Continuo players, principal cellist Desiree Abbey and harpsichordist William Bonness kept a steady pulse throughout. Polo tossed off tricky sequences with aplomb during the Allegro ma non molto, leading to the first cheers of the evening.
Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op. 33 proved the showpiece of the night. The 20-minute work unfolds as a classically inspired theme with seven variations offering the gamut of nail-biting technical and artistic challenges.
Polo immediately launched into the opening statement of the theme, instantly transporting us into the composer's sound world. The first variation, composed of skipping triplets, led into the next section, where the grinning soloist appeared to toy with the MCO players in playful dialogue.
The third variation displayed his poetic lyricism including flexible rubato -- although this could have gone further. At times rocking back and forth, Polo seemed completely inside the music that builds to a climax before subsiding back into sonic depths.
He lightly executed trills during the fourth and fifth variations, as well as the virtuosic runs and dramatic grand "fall" that leads back into the orchestral tutti. By the sixth and seventh variations, Polo had clearly woven his spell over the rapt crowd. But lest there be any doubt, his razor thin notes in his extreme upper register, followed by musical pyrotechnics, affirmed his intense artistry that is a joy to behold.
It's rare for an entire house to leap to its feet even before the final notes of a piece have faded away. In this case, 910 of Polo's newest fans erupted into a thunderous standing ovation, demanding three curtain calls that led to an encore of Gaspar Cassadò's Solo Cello Suite (first movement).
The concert also included Dorothy Chang's Virtuosities, originally composed to commemorate MCO's 40th anniversary.
Manson also led the players through a brisk, and sometimes overly brusque, interpretation of Haydn's Symphony No. 87 in A Major.