Yo-Yo Ma at CSO

Though Symphony Center was closed for Super Bowl Sunday, there were plenty of spectacular performances on its main stage.

At 11 a.m., young professionals who make up the 95-year-old Civic Orchestra—the only training orchestra of its kind affiliated with a major symphony organization—took their seats on Orchestra Hall’s Armour Stage to rehearse for an April concert.

But it wasn’t an ordinary rehearsal. To the immediate left of the conductor’s podium, occupied by Carlos Miguel Prieto, music director of the Louisiana Philharmonic, was Yo-Yo Ma, the Judson and Joyce Green creative consultant to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and a mastermind of the CSO’s Citizen Musician Initiative.

Ma and Prieto have previously collaborated — on Dvorak, Elgar and Haydn, among others — and played together at Symphony Center in May 2012. Of that performance, Chicago Tribune classical music critic John von Rhein wrote: Ma “lifted Dvorak from the ordinary … through his generosity.”

If Ma can be described in a single word, it should be “generous.” That quality seems to define his aspiration as well as purpose. It surfaces as he performs with colleagues, when he speaks, and as he interacts with just about everybody. And it’s the word that others often use to characterize the renowned cellist. Prieto also speaks of Ma’s generosity not only as a performer but also “as a person who always finds time to give of himself to others.”

The combination of that generosity and artistic eminence is precisely why Ma is so committed to the concept of citizen musicianship. On this day, as his norm, Ma enthusiastically keeps a peripatetic schedule of performances, informal pop-up concerts or open rehearsals at Chicago public schools as part of the CSO’s Citizen Musician Initiative.

In April, Ma will be the soloist as Prieto leads the Civic Orchestra in Strauss’ Don Quixote, which evokes in music the adventures of the idealistic “Man of La Mancha” (and the inspiration for the word “quixotic”) from Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th-century novel. The musical selection gives insight into Ma’s latest creative challenge to Civic musicians: to be generous to themselves as well as the audience, and “to offer the music as a service and a means of communication” of the genuinely romantic quest not only of Don Quixote but also of an artist’s journey. And simultaneously to reveal to Civic members their own potential for promoting the values of music-making in the world outside the concert hall.

For the first six minutes of the rehearsal, Ma and Prieto neither played nor conducted. After the segment, Civic members lowered their music stands so Ma could see and connect with them. When he joined the performance, Ma was fully engaged and highly animated, encouraging the concertmaster or challenging fellow cellists — even rising from his chair and soloing with his cello nearly perpendicular. The image recalled the stage presence of rock icon Jimi Hendrix, who would swirl around to indicate the music’s buoyancy.

Prieto, seemingly less a conductor and more a coach, gently specified refinements and emphases, using Cervantes’ writing — at one moment even holding up the actual book — to explain how Strauss wanted to translate Cervantes’ words into music. Describing Quixote as “the best movie soundtrack ever,” he urged the musicians to consider themselves as imagists.

During two previous rehearsals of Don Quixote, Civic members worked on their own without a conductor — essentially without a net. It was the prime directive from Ma toward the goal of instilling a spirit of community among the players, while motivating the 90 musicians to make individual contributions toward a shared ideal of a better performance. Ma calls it “musicians aligning as an entity.”

Later in the day in Buntrock Hall — after a performance of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 with several Civic musicians, Ma led yet another of his community engagements as creative consultant. The discussion gathered together students from the nearby Music Conservatory at Roosevelt University and members of the Chicago Cello Society to talk about the Quixote challenge as well as professional music-making.

Enthusiastic to begin the dialogue, Ma offered: “This morning at rehearsal I witnessed an unbelievable occurrence. The first six minutes [of Don Quixote] was at the highest level possible. It was wonderful.” The fellows were slightly nonplussed, so Ma continued: “The entire rehearsal was impressive. You were locked in. Each segment offered a problem. You addressed each one and then solved it. By the end, it was amazing.”

Civic’s challenge to perform Don Quixote dovetails with Ma’s goals for the Citizen Musician Initiative and with the ideal of musicians as “generous” contributors to culture. The notion of citizen musicianship did not originate with him, emphasizes Ma: creating community is something musicians do in different ways every day, and something musicians have done for centuries.  Ma started thinking deeply about this tradition a couple of years ago when he was working on an album of Mendelssohn Trios with Emanuel Ax and Itzhak Perlman.  Ma was also inspired by composer Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) because, Ma has said, “…he accomplished an enormous amount in his short life .… He founded schools and orchestras …. He was generous to colleagues …. He went above and beyond what a musician might have done.”

When he speaks of the values of citizen musicianship, Ma cites the need to work toward something larger than oneself, to balance the largest possible view of the world with a sense of one’s place in it, and above all, to communicate. Music cannot be done alone and isn’t done until it lives in someone else.

As one Civic fellow remarked, “What [Ma] challenged us to do, few of us had ever done before. As a student, it’s difficult to develop your own ideas because we spend so much time learning, practicing. Citizen Musician is teaching us to be active when performing because you have a responsibility to advance your own ideas. And as we see the individual talents of our colleagues, we become stronger as a group.”

That response provided a perfect set-up for Ma: “There is an incredible excitement in experimenting. Keeping all the elements in balance. Not letting the urgency of what must be done overcoming what is important.”

Minutes later, almost everyone in Buntrock Hall was unpacking an instrument, mostly strings, lots of cellos, but also a few winds and even a guitar. Ma went to the center of the assembly. Music stands held the sheets for Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C, along with a movement from Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite.

Using his bow as a baton, Ma led the gathering into an exuberant performance of the concerto. As at rehearsal, he moved himself and his cello around the circle of players surrounding him. He whirled and smiled, cajoled and encouraged a call-and-response musical dialogue, transforming what could have been mere practice into an unforgettable day of music-making. Generously.

Ronald Litke is a Chicago writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times and on the BBC, among others, and is a content contributor for Chicago-based Rivet News Radio.

PHOTO: Carlos Miguel Prieto (left) and Yo-Yo Ma consult with each other during a recent Civic Orchestra rehearsal. | Photo by Anne Ryan

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