JOSEPH DALTON Special to the Times Union
Section: CAPITAL REGION,  Page: B8

Date: Friday, January 17, 2003

ALBANY -- It was a great night for Albany and a great night for music. The grand reopening of the newly refurbished Palace Theatre brought together dignitaries and music lovers to hear the Albany Symphony perform with one of the brightest lights in classical music, cello soloist Yo-Yo Ma. Ma exudes personality and brings an accessibility and beauty to everything he plays. Tchaikovsky's Variations on a Rococo Theme, which concluded the first half, displayed his gifts especially well, since each of the seven variations offer a cellist different challenges and opportunities.

Near the beginning, where the writing is simplest, Ma and the orchestra tossed the theme back and forth in the manner of a call and response, while later the writing again and again draws the cellist up to the extremes of his range. Ma even made a sustained pedal tone in the lower register interesting, almost mesmerizing.

Like a great dancer, Ma has the ability to be so inside the music that he can move slightly ahead of or behind the beat and linger in a phrase so that ultimately time appears to move more slowly than reality. An early solo felt improvised and natural, almost matter of fact, but still lush and handsome.

The Rococo Variations were a good choice not just for Ma but for the hall as well, filled as it is with gold leaf filigree, alabaster cherubs and ornate lighting. Even the exit signs are tasteful.

The Dvorak Cello Concerto made up the program's second half, but for all its grand romantic drama, it was less engaging than the Tchaikovsky. The heroic theme of the opening stays in one's memory and showed more of the long-lined bravado of the musicians. But it was again in the more intimate sections of the middle movement where things felt most right. Several times Ma played a gentle, lyrical passage to which the orchestra responded with increasingly stormy outbursts. Ultimately the peace and serenity won out as the movement faded to silence.

The concert began with the cymbal crashes of the Toreador theme from Bizet's ``Carmen.'' The instrumental selections from the opera were definite crowd pleasers and also nicely showcased the orchestra members who got to play the famous themes originally written for voice. A trumpet handled the Habanera theme well, while a pair of flutes carried the final dance. The ever-present tambourine reminded us we were in Spain.

There were a few speeches to open the night and one encore, a Tchaikovsky rarity with a ballad-like melody, was dedicated to Mayor Jerry Jennings, who with Chairman Alan Goldberg and philanthropist Marty Silverman, deserve much credit for bringing renewed vibrancy to an extraordinarily beautiful and useful venue.

FACTS:MUSIC REVIEW THE PALACE THEATRE GRAND REOPENING Featuring Yo-Yo Ma, cello Albany Symphony Orchestra David Alan Miller, conductor When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday Length: Two hours, 30 minutes Program: Music of Bizet, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak The crowd: Near capacity (2,800).