Yo-Yo Ma gives musical challenge to Chicago's Civic Orchestra

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Yo-Yo Ma

Yo-Yo Ma continues his ongoing process of mentoring the young Civic Orchestra as they prepare to perform Beethoven's 6th symphony in May. (Phil Velasquez/Chicago Tribune / May 3, 2013)

Another time during that rehearsal, Ma had the principal players and the musicians in the back rows swap seats. “How does it feel?” he asked.

Ma was constantly mixing things up, trying to free the musicians from their comfortable routines, urging them to own the music rather than simply to play the notes.

“How do you become unscared?” he asked at one point. “It's when you become completely a part of it.”

He suggested the musicians think up characteristics for each movement and then play those characteristics: “open,” “expressive,” “tranquil” for the first movement; “powerful,” “scary,” “trepidatious” for the fourth.

“I think everyone is getting to a place where we're about just making music,” principal second violinist Beth Larson said after the full March rehearsal, though she noted that memorizing the symphony remained “a very scary concept for everyone.”

Still, she remained confident that everything would work out, in large part because of their famous mentor's faith in them. “Yo-Yo Ma looking you in the eyes and telling you, ‘I believe in you; you can do it,' that's pretty awesome,” Larson said.

Yet by mid-April, as nine Civic principals rehearsed in a circle, they were all too aware of how much work still was needed before they could deliver the Beethoven's Sixth of their dreams. So many issues remained unresolved involving tempo, flow, the relation of downbeats to upbeats and many other areas. Every moment in the symphony, after all, now represented an interpretive decision to be made by the collective.

“Something like a symphony you kind of are used to relying on a conductor to tell you, ‘This is how we're going to phrase this, this is how this tempo is going to go,'” Larson said. “And when it's on us, it's really fun because you can make it what you want, but you also have to have 80 other people agree with you.”

Ma tried to keep the section leaders focused on playing in the moment without losing sight of the big picture. “Bad musicians are showing you the architecture,” he said. “The good musicians are letting you experience it.”

He told them he wasn't hearing the rapture of a certain crescendo that should be “a moment of discovery, of wonder, of awe.”

The musicians played it again.

“None of you are awe-struck,” Ma said.

He experimented with having the musicians play while standing — and later discussed the whole performing-while-standing possibility with Riccardo Muti, the CSO music director.

“That sounded terrible,” Zajac noted after a ragged standing run-through.

“OK,” Ma said. “Try it again. Fix it.”

Later Ma prompted them to sing their parts, the result sounding like a Farmers Insurance ad. “What I hear in your singing is you're probably not free enough to own the whole piece,” Ma said.

When the rehearsal ended, the musicians and Ma shared a buffet lunch around a large round table and reflected on how far they'd traveled and still had to go.

“I thought I knew what I was doing when I started this, but now there's just so much more, there's so much further that we can go in every single aspect of this,” said bassist Christopher “Kit” Polen. “It's awesome.”

Zajac expressed surprise that the group actually was managing to shape the music to resemble nature in more than a theoretical way, a point that also impressed flutist Henry Williford. “It can't still be a river; it has to be a sound,” Williford said. “It has to be something musical.”

“I've been surprised by how committed Yo-Yo is to the project,” Benson said, prompting applause around the table. “Obviously I knew you'd be into it and here for us, but you've been here the whole way and worked with us so much. I didn't expect that at the beginning.”

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