An enthusiastic crowd ventured out on a frigid December evening as Yo-Yo Ma hosted a free open rehearsal with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago at Nicholas Senn High School, in a Citizen Musician event. It was the second visit of the day for Ma, the CSO’s Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant, who held an afternoon workshop with students at the Edgewater high school, where they had the chance to meet, chat with, and even perform with the renowned cellist.

After a warm introduction from Senn principal Susan Lofton, Ma first entertained the audience not by playing his beloved cello, but rather by jokingly cranking up the wind machine that’s used in a section of Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote, the piece that is the focus of a seasonlong project between Ma and the Civic, the training orchestra of the CSO. Ma then brought out 23-year-old Matthew Aucoin, the CSO’s Second International Sir Georg Solti Conducting Apprentice working under CSO Music Director Riccardo Muti, to conduct the lively Strauss work.

Inspired by the novel Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes, the tone poem’s 12 episodes feature the solo cello playing the role of Don Quixote and the solo viola, tenor tuba, and bass clarinet as his sidekick Sancho Panza. As Aucoin, Ma, and the musicians worked their way through the piece, the players popped up between musical episodes to take the microphone and give the audience a quick synopsis of what was to come.

During a break in the rehearsal, Ma asked some of the Civic members what inspired them to become musicians (“It makes me happy,” said one. “It helped me deal with the death of my older brother when I was in seventh grade,” shared another.) Then he opened the floor for questions from the audience, which included everyone from seasoned music lovers, to appreciative community members, to no small number of curious kids.

“How much time did you practice when you were a kid?” one young girl asked Ma. “All the time!” the cellist said, while admitting to answering that question from a child’s point of view (and to actually enjoying practicing now that he is an adult). “Even on weekends?” she responded, to the laughter of the audience.

How did Civic violist Helen Hess have the courage to stand up during her solo parts? a woman wondered. It made her very nervous, Hess told the crowd, but if Yo-Yo asks you to do something, “you sort of go with it,” she said.

“How can you stand playing all that vibrato — all the time?” asked a young boy, mimicking the vibrating motion used by string players to vary the pitch of a note. Ma grabbed his cello to show how vibrato should really be used only on some of the notes, to add color to a musical piece.

And with that, the performers took a break from their work as true Citizen Musicians, who use the power of music to enrich our schools, our communities and people’s lives.

Janet Franz is a locally based freelance writer.

PHOTO: Yo-Yo Ma (far left), Civic Orchestra members and Matthew Aucoin (far right) perform at Senn High School. | Todd Rosenberg Photography