Yo-Yo Ma at Orchestra Hall

Feature photo by Todd Rosenberg

Last Sunday’s program at a packed Orchestra Hall found me reveling in the sounds created by Yo-Yo Ma, virtuoso French-born American cellist of Chinese descent, winner of fifteen Grammy Awards, United Nations Messenger of Peace, member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, National Medal of Arts recipient, invited performer at President Obama’s inauguration – arguably the most famous classical musician of the modern age.

The afternoon began with Ma and longtime collaborator and friend Emanuel Ax performing Beethoven’s Cello Sonata Number 3. After this first piece, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra co-principal clarinetist, Chicago’s own Anthony McGill (who also played at Obama´s inauguration) joined them for the performance of Brahms’ Clarinet Trio, in the debut of these three stars playing as a trio.  This was followed by the first movement of Mendelssohn’s Octet for strings, showcasing along with Ma, Ax and McGill, six Chicago-based “citizen musicians,” participants in a recently inaugurated, Ma-spearheaded CSO project to use music as an instrument to transform communities. The extraordinary afternoon, which shed a luminous light on an otherwise gray Chicago day, ended with Ax, Ma and CSO Concertmaster Robert Chen playing Schumann’s Piano Quartet in E-flat Major.

I found myself deeply moved particularly by the first two pieces in the program. Beethoven is considered the first great composer of cello sonatas, and the Cello Sonata Number 3, first performed in 1812, is one of the only five he wrote. This particular combination of instruments makes for difficult music writing, because the bass of the piano easily covers the low notes of the cello, and achieving balance between the two instruments is always complicated. The sounds created by Ma and Ax were of truly exquisite perfection, and even in the venerable 1904 Hall with its thousands of seats occupied, every single note could be heard, down to the softest and most delicate.

Ma easily commanded total attention as he played. Notes blossomed and flowed from his instrument as he played with total devotion and in a completely unselfconscious manner, sometimes swaying, and even at times raising one or both feet in the air as he continued to play. I have rarely experienced a musician and his instrument so as one.

The Brahms A Minor Trio was equally entrancing. One of the last four pieces Brahms composed in his lifetime, the piece was a study in all of music’s dynamics – lingering notes, swelling phrases, full silences. The piece evoked such a range of emotions – from profound longing to radiant exhilaration – as if it encapsulated the composer’s autumnal reflection of life’s many experiences. Ax, Ma and McGill engaged in a beautiful dialogue as they played, leaning into each other as if speaking through their instruments, smiling happily and nodding at each other at other intervals, swaying together to the compass of the beauty they were creating in a magically choreographed dance.

Seated next to me, an elderly African American gentleman sighed in rapture at one point, “such melody in this concert” he exclaimed quietly, “such beautiful melody”.

I could only agree.

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