Internationally acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma wrapped up a decade as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant with 24 hours of whirlwind activity last week — both big and intimate, central and outlying. Whether playing Bach or engaging in community service, he inspired Chicagoans to share sanctuary with one another, embrace creative possibilities, confront challenges — and listen to lots and lots of Bach.
Ma’s ongoing Bach Project couples performances of the composer’s six Cello Suites with of-the-moment Days of Action in 36 venues around the world: from Leipzig last autumn, where Bach’s hometown is becoming a hotbed of political resentment, and ending in November in Christchurch, New Zealand, torn by a terrorist shooting last March.
Thursday evening: sanctuary at Millennium Park
A huge Millennium Park crowd of 20,000 gathers for Ma’s traversal of the Bach Suites, pushing Pritzker Pavilion to its physical limits. The big crowd packing the lawn celebrates Chicago’s remarkably diverse population, with English just one of several languages heard in the audience.
A black stanchion and ripped chain-link fencing mark the distant edge of the concert stage. At its center, a temporary black curtain, a few feet high, seemingly sets off the limits of individual space in this immense Chicago crowd.
Ma sits just ahead of the black curtain, just a chair and his Stradivarius, and starts Bach’s Suite No. 1. The playing is introspective, almost insular. Familiar trappings of Ma’s stage manner — broad sways and evocative expressions — are measured, even absent at times. He seems to be defining his own compact world, alone with Bach’s music.
Forty minutes or more pass before Ma addresses the audience, thanking the crowd “for sharing this moment with me,” then dedicating Suite No. 3 to the entire City of Chicago. But the cellist’s remarks before Bach’s Fifth Suite are the most telling of all.
“At good times, and less good times, I would always turn to this music … as a sanctuary,” Ma says, alluding to Chicago’s status as a “sanctuary city” that does not regularly target immigration violations or partner with U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement. “This great city — this global city — is a global city because it takes care of its own,” he tells the crowd.
The concert is a shared civic collective where every Chicagoan belongs. Ma’s musical introspection isn’t distancing; it’s inviting the crowd to explore and understand what music means to him. Bach reduced to its emotional core — “of all the Suites, I think this is the one I turn to most for that kind of sanctuary,” he says.
In a safe and welcoming space, 20,000 strong, in a city, tonight, music is at the service of its citizenry.
Friday morning: taking root at Unity Park
“They’ve got a program down here in the park,” a tall man sporting a “Legends of Lawndale” T-shirt and basketball cap tells his cellphone. “Some celloist guy. Yo-Yo. You know what I’m talking about?”
Celebrity tree plantings invite a scrum of cameras and speeches, and Unity Park certainly fits the bill. Teams of volunteers sport photo-ready orange safety vests.
Work buckets with sponsor names are flipped over for impromptu stools and seating. So many civic-minded matching T-shirts — four or five from an environmental group, more from an arts camp, others from a music festival — it looks like prelims for a Legends of Lawndale three-on-three tournament.
Marion Perkins sits a good way down the alley, away from the main gathering, in a lawn chair behind her garage. It’s the spot in narrow Unity Park she knows the best. Perkins has tilled this promising yet troubling strip of vacant land since 1999, three years before a community group acquired it. “This was Drug City, without a doubt,” she says, “a fast way to get to the drugs at the end of the block.” Her efforts over the years turned the strip into a fledging play area for kids like her Ladruis, who’s around here somewhere. Perkins apologizes, taking leave to tend to more important business. “I’m going to find my grandson.”
Osayi, a high-school student, sits away from the vests, saplings and logo tees. Headphones on and sketchbook in hand, he seems cautious, if maybe willing, to engage in the choreography of today’s community enterprise.
The cellist arrives, unannounced, scooting near Perkins down the alley, a wave and a smile to those who notice him, maybe a hug or two — then plenty — as he edges toward Osayi and eventually the shovels, microphones and tripods. Ma’s the center of attention, but he starts near the margins and looks for way to draw them inward.
A writer (this one) suggests Osayi, a budding animator, try sketching Ma in his notebook. “I didn’t know who he was till I came here,” says Osayi, freeing himself from his headphones. Ma begins to play, and Osayi starts to pencil.
A neighbor walks past and pauses with a compliment. “That’s old school” — drawing portraits in the selfie era, or maybe he’s talking about Ma’s Bach. Chicago’s adopted cellist wants his own musicianship to inspire creativity in others, bring strangers together, their guards down, and share culture with one another. That’s the ephemeral sapling, which cameras can’t quite capture, Ma cultivates in Unity Park this morning.
Friday afternoon: forcing the conversation in Pilsen
If Yo-Yo Ma is a hugger, Lori Lightfoot is careful choosing those she initially embraces.
Moments before a community panel at the National Museum of Mexican Art, the cellist’s arms-wide greeting of Chicago’s new mayor subtly shifts to continental-style pecks on the cheek.
Today, Ma and Lightfoot explore opportunities and complications that arise when different Chicago communities bump up against one another. Their co-panelist Jahmal Cole’s T-shirt “MY BLOCK / MY HOOD / MY CITY seems hopeful and optimistic, if somehow territorial, too — a visual cue, as the mayor puts it, to “call the question … and force the conversation.”
Another panelist, Hailey Love, remarks on her frustrations: “I feel like it’s illegal to be a teenager in Chicago,” tailed by curfews and shopping-mall security, prompting the mayor’s reply that “there should be free passage without a worry that there’s three or more gathered, and there’s going to be a riot.”
Lightfoot posits that many Chicago teens head downtown, where “they’re essentially under armed escort,” because their own “neighborhoods are literally starving” for arts and culture. “It’s like the embers of the 1968 riots were just put out,” she says. “There’s nothing there. … Anyone, anywhere, has a right to be anywhere they want to be in our city.”
Then Lightfoot cedes the stage to the cellist who had just gathered 20,000 Chicagoans downtown the night before.
Maybe his big Bach concert was a simple dinner invitation, offering “a fantasy of people inviting each other from different walks of life into their homes, because that’s the beginning of culture,” Ma says. In Chicago, “Music is my calling card. It’s a pot-luck supper, and I’m bringing my favorite dish.
“In music, you have to start from the inside. You need a guide to take you into the house of music.” It’s the way the cellist guided Chicagoans through his interior world with Bach’s Suites on Thursday night.
“The currency of culture is trust, not power or money,” Ma tells Lightfoot. “If we’re ever going to unite the United States, it’s going to be through what happens in Chicago.”
Call the question and force the conversation.
Friday rush hour: all tied up around Wacker Drive
The bend in the Riverwalk on Friday afternoon, at a low angle from Lower Wacker Drive, is a visual and aural cacophony — the bright hues and vibrant soundtrack of Fritz Lang’s 1927 imagination seem realized in abrupt rough cut. Elevated train cars rush west on the impossible diagonals of this Metropolis while locomotives hug the surface. Jagged towers cap the rich upper city, hiding the cavernous works below. Every manner of watercraft heads upriver and down — even some in a third direction west of Wolf Point.
Honks punctuate the traffic din. There’s a constant, elevated clip-clop above the Lake Street bridge, with Metra whistling around the bend. It’s a brazen, chaotic counterpoint, like cello suites on vinyl spun backward — are hidden messages slipped in there? “Play me Bach, Yo-Yo?”
A Civic Orchestra of Chicago ensemble rushes to set up music stands — Ma will play with them shortly — but there’s no bringing order to this scattered setting. It’s 10 minutes to 5 when the musicians shift the stage 15 feet, pushing gathered fans smack into “Black Tiberinus.”
Local artist Robert Burnier’s riverside installation — a tribute to the god of Rome’s flowing Tiber — is a site-specific tangle of ropes, posts, knots and tarpaulin. And now Black Tiberinus is a web that’s trapped listeners, too, right in front of Ma and his young string compatriots.
Everyone jostles for better views when Ma and the Civic players start — North Siders in matching caps grabbing the top of Black Tiberinus’ Cubbie-blue canvas, a mom changing her newborn on the grass, an older couple needing to lean and hoping a wobbly beam won’t tumble — even a stuck music writer, still learning the ropes, desperate for a metaphor.
At this final Day of Action stop, the cellist doesn’t speak at all. Bach does all of the talking. What seems a tangled jumble at the heart of a chaotic metropolis is actually a common sanctuary, a respite where optimists seek common support, where art and culture are shared.
From Yo-Yo Ma’s vantage behind his Strad, embracing the source of his music, it looks like everyone in Chicago is truly tied together.