Yo-Yo Ma takes music to the masses

Yo-Yo Ma
Chicago Sun-Times

By Andrew Patner

It’s hard to tell if Yo-Yo Ma ever has a weekend that is not busy, but the superstar cellist was certainly all over Chicago this weekend and will be spending many more such periods of musical performance and advocacy here as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first creative consultant.

A flash-mob performance Saturday morning with the Chicago Children’s Choir at Metra’s downtown Millennium Station followed a live closed-circuit television appearance at Children’s Memorial Hospital and preceded a free afternoon program at the Chicago Cultural Center with colleagues including clarinetist Anthony McGill and pianist Emanuel Ax.

McGill, a South Side native who got his start with the Merit School of Music here and now is a principal player in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and Ax were also riding the Ma express this weekend. They arrived at the Cultural Center from Parkway Community House in West Woodlawn (“I told them I come from where you come from,” McGill said) and DePaul University’s Youth Program in Lincoln Park, respectively. Together with CSO Association President Deborah F. Rutter, the trio launched a new “Citizen Musicians” program complete with an attractive interactive website at citizen musician.org.


As Rutter and company made clear Saturday, and as a sold-out concert Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center underscored, the CSO’s work with youth, communities and the underserved is neither faddish nor happening without tremendous groundwork and experience. Rather it builds on myriad activities now under the umbrella of its Institute for Learning, Access and Training, which range from work with schools to incarcerated youth to the Chicago Park District to free concerts by professional ensembles.

And it’s all without sacrificing quality or getting too cutesy. The concert Sunday had as wide a range of ages, colors and backgrounds as has been seen at Orchestra Hall in a long time, and the program was serious business. Ma and Ax opened with a spirited, almost per­iod-style performance of Beethoven’s Third Cello Sonata, followed by McGill joining them for the rapturous Brahms Clarinet Trio.

The second half held the delightfully rambunctious first movement of the Mendelssohn String Octet (also heard at Saturday’s free Cultural Center event) with Ma, CSO concertmaster Robert Chen and his colleagues Susan Synnestvedt on violin and Catherine Brubaker on viola. Two other concertmasters joined in: Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Robert Hanford and the Civic Orchestra’s Jaime Gorgojo, as well as veteran viola Rami Solomonow and CSO Youth Auditions winner cellist Gabriel Cabezas.

Ma and Ax then welcomed Chen and Solomonow for a truly glorious offering of the Schumann Piano Quartet before McGill returned for an encore to reprise John Williams’ “Air and Simple Gifts,” which he had played two years ago with Ma and others at President Obama’s inauguration (and on Saturday at the Cultural Center).

Ma’s message has always been both clear and true: Music can be a part of our lives and of society if we make it so, and musicians should see this work as a part of their own lives. We’re lucky that so many of these efforts have his cheerful and unflagging guidance in Chicago.