Renee Fleming, Yo-Yo Ma in harmony

03.19.12
Yo-Yo Ma
Chicago Tribune

By Mark Caro

Artists tout arts education, perform together downtown

Renee Fleming and Yo-Yo Ma took a moment to peer over the Thompson Center's curved main-floor balcony down to the circular-patterned ground floor where music stands, microphones, an electronic keyboard and a phalanx of TV cameras indicated that something was up.

In less than half an hour in this soaring atrium, these two classical-music superstars aligned with Chicago institutions — Ma the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's creative consultant, Fleming in the same role with the Lyric Opera — would be performing together publicly for the first time in a “surprise performance” intended to tout the importance of arts education. The unusualness of this collaboration extended to the CSO and Lyric, which traditionally have been more competitors than cooperators.

The famous opera singer and cellist went unnoticed as they took in the scene, then headed up to one of the Loop office building's second-floor conference rooms, where Gov. Pat Quinn greeted them.

“Citizen Musician, we believe in that mission,” the governor enthused, referring to the CSO-led initiative to raise awareness of the importance of music in everyday lives. “A hundred thousand people go through (this building) every day, so it's a great place to move the movement.”

By the time 12:30 p.m. rolled around, crowds were lining the first-floor balcony and circling the basement performance area.

“It appears people aren't completely surprised,” Damian Woetzel, director of the Aspen Institute Arts Program and a participant in Monday's events, said as he descended the escalator. “Hopefully they won't expect the scale of it.”

Woetzel hadn't yet seen the fliers on the food court tables that read: “Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Lyric Opera of Chicago welcome this collaborative event that celebrates the value of music in our daily lives with soprano Renee Fleming and cellistYo-Yo Ma.”

So, OK, the folks sitting and standing around knew what was coming, even if many hadn't been aware before they arrived to grab fast-food sandwiches and entrees. Fortunately for the organizers, the event's success or failure wouldn't be based on a parsing of the word “surprise.”

Star performers don't generally become involved in the operations of major arts organizations, but about a year after the CSO and Music Director Riccardo Muti named Ma as creative consultant in December 2009, the Lyric gave Fleming the same title. Ma and Fleming have sought to help their respective organizations reach out into the broader communities, but otherwise their work hadn't overlapped any more than the CSO's and Lyric's efforts have in recent years.

Yet when the pair realized that their ever-jammed schedules would bring them both to Chicago at the same time, with Fleming participating in the Merit School of Music's Career Day on Saturday and Ma performing a chamber concert at Symphony Center on Sunday, their parent organizations got to work.

“We said we're going to do this, heck or high water,” CSO Association President Deborah Rutter said. “We may never get them in the same city again.”

Anthony Freud, who became the Lyric's general director Oct. 1, said he saw Monday's events as an opportunity for the city's two highest profile music organizations and their famous consultants to respond to society's marginalization of the arts while also promoting the Lyric's newly cooperative spirit.

“Collaborations with other cultural organizations around the city hasn't been something that has happened often with Lyric, and I'm really excited about this,” Freud said.

The day began at Lake View High School, where Fleming arrived looking elegant in a white jacket over a low-necked black dress while Ma was more casual in a blue Oxford shirt and gray slacks. Visiting schools is nothing new to Ma, but it was to Fleming.

“I've never done anything like this before,” she said.

Yet this daughter of two music teachers was a natural as she told African-American history students of the time she flubbed the national anthem lyrics at the World Series and, in another classroom, responded to a poetry-slam performance (for which Ma played Bach on his cello) by offering very specific, encouraging advice on how to adjust volume and pitch “to make a sound that really projects.”

The subsequent school assembly found Fleming and Ma greeted with Justin Bieber-level screams before they, Woetzel, CSO musicians and a choir of students from Lake View, Merit and the Chicago High School for the Arts ran through the program they would later perform at the Thompson Center. At one point while microphones were being set up, Fleming led the audience through “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and, yep, she stumbled over a lyric, and, nope, that didn't alter how spirited the students' participation was.

“I love your school,” Ma told students exiting.

“It's all kind of surreal to me, to have such big names and such famous people come to our school to talk to us,” Connor Cooney, 18, captain of both the school's choir and football team, said in the hallway. “I hope to take my experience from here to college to improve on my artistry.”

Helene Paris, her 3-year-old grandson and her 20-month-old granddaughter had been at the morning's “Once Upon a Symphony” family program at Symphony Center before stopping by the Thompson Center for lunch.

“We are so overwhelmingly excited. This to us is double the pleasure,” said Paris, who later plopped herself and her grandson down on the marble floor closer to the action.

Unlike the January 2011 flash mob in which Ma and the Chicago Children's Choirsurprised passers-by in the Millennium Park Metra station, Monday's event had more of a traditional performance-audience dynamic, with many TV and still cameras upfront and hundreds of observers in the food court and lining the balconies above. The high school choruses kicked things off with the South African chant “Tshotsholoza” before Fleming and Ma took center floor.

She sang the wordless “ooohs” of Rachmaninoff's “Vocalise” and, while Ma played his solo passage, put her hand to her chest and shook her head slowly and soulfully. When she resumed singing, her eyes and Ma's were locked in an affectionate, unspoken dialogue.

After that performance, Quinn told the crowd: “We are in the presence of two of the greatest artists on planet Earth.”

Fleming, Ma, the choruses and musicians closed the program with an elegiac “America the Beautiful”; the high school kids sang along more than the crowd did, but it was stirring nonetheless. Afterward fans approached the stars seeking photos and autographs.

“It's inspirational,” Refugio Alvarado, 22, a Harold Washington College student as well as guitar player, said from his lunch table. “It's not common to be having lunch in the same room as these artists. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

“It went a hundred times better than I thought it would,” Fleming said of the event. “I didn't expect so many people. It was really terrific, the response, the amount of people who circled in and listened.”

She also was beaming about her first collaboration with Ma.

“He just gives love when he performs,” Fleming said. “More than any performer I've ever seen, met, heard of, he just exudes everything best. Everything there is that's good to say about being a human being comes out of him, pours out of him.”

Ma subsequently referred to Fleming as “incredibly beautiful,” both talent-wise and otherwise, and after the concert, they were discussing what their next collaboration would be.

“Now that we have had this experience, it's just going to be very easy to pick up the phone and say, ‘Hey, what about …' ‘I just met a composer …' or ‘Would you like to do this?'” Ma said. “And we talked about it.”

One possibility, he said, would be to enlist a composer such as Giovanni Sollima, who wrote the eight-cellos piece “Violoncelles, Vibrez!” that Fleming enjoyed hearing Ma perform at Sunday's concert, to compose something for voice and cello. Or maybe they would do something else that involved kids. 

“I don't know,” he said. “The point is the wheels are turning.”