The Lubbock Symphony Orchestra’s new season opened last night at a sold out Civic Center Theater. Maestro David Cho conducted his first concert as the orchestra’s music director. The guest artist was cellist Yo-Yo Ma who performed Elgar’s Cello Concerto.

The first half of the evening was devoted to Czech music. The program began with Smetana’s overture to his opera The Bartered Bride. To non-Czechs this is the most familiar part of Smetana comic masterpiece, though it has been performed 83 times by the Metropolitan Opera – most recently in 1996.  The overture was followed by Dvorak’s infrequently performed Czech Suite. The intermission was reached with the second and seventh of Dvorak’s opus 72 Slavonic Dances.

The LSO has reached a performance level that would make a city ten times Lubbock’s size proud. Under Maestro Cho’s vigorous leadership the Smetana overture had bounce and thrust. The orchestra tossed off his brisk tempos with elan and ease. The audience welcomed the new music director with a standing ovation, both before and after the first piece.

The Czech Suite is a more restrained work that allowed Cho and his ensemble to show its lyric side. The fifth and final section of the work has a series of quirky off beat and stuttering sections just before its end which Cho realized with great panache.

The two Slavonic Dances are orchestral staples. The 2nd is rhapsodic while the 7th is virtuosic. Cho and his players fully realized both qualities. The first half of the program was so well performed that the listener was certain that the LSO’s future was in good hands.

The second half of the concert solely consisted of the Elgar concerto. Mr Ma’s appearance was greeted very enthusiastically by the capacity crowd. Ma is one of those rare charismatic performers who instantly communicates with his audience. He won the audience over just by walking onto the stage with his cello in one hand while waving to the crowd with the other. His entire persona radiates warmth and charm. Remarkably his playing was even more winning than his personality.

The Elgar concerto was written in 1919 and reflects Elgar’s  despair over the catastrophe of the late war. It’s an introspective work in four movements meant to be played without pause. Ma’s playing was so intense and moving that the audience couldn’t stop itself from applauding after the first movement. Ma reacted with a smile and was unfazed. Shortly after the first movement’s start there is an ad lib scale that Ma played with otherworldly delicacy. The whole concerto is a unique mixture of elfin grace and delicate and demanding playing. I’ve heard the concerto many times; it’s one of the great masterpieces for the instrument. But I’ve never heard it played with the skill and passion that Ma delivered. There was a lot of hype about his visit, but he easily lived up to all of it.

There is always the chance that when a uniquely great artist reaches a certain height that he may coast on his reputation. That decidedly was not the case last night. Ma gave everything he had. His level of performance was greater than that anticipated by a very expectant crowd. The communication between Maestro Cho’s orchestra and its distinguished guest artist was almost telepathic. This was one of those evenings that was perfect. Cho is off to the greatest start possible in his new job as music director of the LSO. Both his and the band’s future seems boundless.

The audience would not let Mr Ma go after the performance. They kept bringing him back and he kept bringing the young Maestro with him. He repeatedly gestured his appreciation to the orchestra which they deserved.

He played two encores. The first was a piece by Mark O’Connor. The second he announced as being either from Suzuki Book 4 or 5. It was an excerpt from one of Bach’s pieces for unaccompanied cello.