Yo-Yo Ma and friends launch new CSO project and seal it with superb concert

Mon Jan 31, 2011 at 2:36 pm

By Gerald Fisher

Anthony McGill, Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax perform Brahms’ Clarinet Trio Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Sunday afternoon’s concert at Symphony Center was an auspicious moment for Yo-Yo Ma in his role as creative consultant to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Appointed to the position a year ago, he has taken his cue from music director Riccardo Muti’s aspiration to bring the orchestra into the community. In addition to his consultancy the concert also marked the debut of the CSO’s cultural outreach “Citizen Musician” program, announced Friday.

The project is a “call to action” for all musicians—professional, amateur, and young—as well as music teachers fans, educators, and schools “to use their talent and passion for music to enhance the quality of life and address issues of concern in their communities.” (citizenmusician.org)

Citizen Musician is a rather vague concept as yet—as CSO president Deborah Rutter declared Sunday “All of you are citizen musicians!”—- yet the project was already turning heads on Saturday. There were outreach events involving Ma, pianist Emanuel Ax and Chicago-based clarinetist Anthony McGill along with the Chicago Children’s Choir and other musicians heading out to places like Children’s Memorial Hospital, Parkway Community Center, DePaul University Music School and the Millennium Park Metra Station. At the Cultural Center’s Saturday afternoon inauguration of the initiative, the three artists, with CSO concertmaster Robert Chen, performed John Williams’ Air and Simple Gifts. Also Ma was joined by seven CSO regulars and hand-picked string players from the Chicago musical community, for the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Octet. Both pieces were reprised by these artists at the Symphony Center recital Sunday.

But it was the rest of Sunday’s concert that boded especially well for Ma’s tenure: the program was substantial and generous and the collective music-making was of the highest quality possible. If this was a taste of what’s ahead, we should be in for some memorable musical experiences.

Ma and Ax opened the recital with Beethoven’s Cello Sonata No. 3, Op. 69, and the performance was magisterial and full of insight. Though both artists have performed this music hundreds of times they gave their all to the drama and found a surprisingly fresh melodic grace in this middle-period masterpiece.

The Brahms Clarinet Trio, Op. 114, an even greater inspiration, was given a polished and deeply satisfying rendering with McGill, Ma and Ax equal partners in thoughtful dialogue and autumnal expression. In playing of this quality technique is invisible and the experience of the music goes straight to the heart.

Ma and company saved the best for last however with Schumann’s infreqently heard Piano Quartet, Op. 47, dating from 1842, the composer’s most fertile period for chamber music. Chen and violist Rami Solomonow made up the quorum and Sunday’s lucky audience was again treated to a finely crafted and definitive performance of a Romantic masterwork which was at times dark and atmospheric and at other times melodic and virtuosic.

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