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)

Ma posed that question to the Civic musicians while leading an open rehearsal in a packed Senn High School auditorium in December. But before we get into how the cellist attempted such alchemy, let's pause to offer some notes about the Civic Orchestra.

Founded in 1919 by Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Frederick Stock, the Civic is the CSO's pre-professional training ensemble, the only such outfit affiliated with a major American orchestra, according to the CSO. Musicians, who remain members for two years, tend to be in their early 20s.

Since Ma was named the CSO's Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant in December 2009, he has concentrated on the orchestra's fledgling Citizen Musician initiative and its mission of extending and expanding music's role in people's lives. He has spent much time working with kids whom he considers at the optimal stage to embrace music and its power.

Employing similar logic, he decided last year to direct energy toward the Civic musicians in their buffer period between finishing school and entering the professional world.

“I do feel that the Civic musicians are at the right age to engage in these kinds of things,” Ma said during a dressing-room conversation after one Civic rehearsal. “This is a time to actually explore and broaden what the mainstream of society doesn't really have time to do.”

What he is stressing to them is a departure from traditional musical training, which was effective when accomplished musicianship was seen as a guarantee of work. That no longer is the case, yet just because musicians' jobs have become more scarce doesn't mean their role in society has grown less important; in fact, Ma argued, the opposite may be true. The challenge, he said, is to identify society's needs, just as orchestras were created before anyone realized they were needed.

“There's room in our world for more imaginative thinking, or a need for it, or for more humanistic thinking,” he said. “If there's more need for that, then young people cannot only look at the jobs that actually exist but also think about where the jobs don't yet exist and find (them), whether it's a storefront near a public school that actually can offer music and literacy, a place that can serve a community that needs it … a place where the inner life of a child or a family is addressed.”

Tom Wolf, who consults with the CSO with his Boston-based company WolfBrown, considers it “groundbreaking” for someone of Ma's stature to be engaging this deeply, and in this specific way, with a young training orchestra.

“He in a very positive way is addressing a negative reality about the career track of classical musicians,” said Wolf, noting as well that the cellist's musical approach “takes it beyond that old-fashioned master class and really works with the orchestra players to (reach) a very deep understanding of the music and how it connects to them viscerally and emotionally and culturally and socially.”

The Beethoven's Sixth mission is no mere a jobs-training program, at any rate, as Ma and Colnot aim to get the musicians to alter their mindsets and skill sets through a project that emphasizes collaboration, consensus-building and creativity as they take collective control of a great symphony.

Said Colnot: “We're largely interested in encouraging the Civic musicians to develop and nurture skills that are transferable, that aren't just music skills but life skills.”

So, for instance: communication. With no conductor onstage, the orchestra must figure out how to maintain a steady tempo and keep track of what each musician is doing in the way that a chamber ensemble would. When Ma performs he tends to spend less time glancing at his music than he does making eye contact with his fellow players. Now the Civic musicians would have to learn to communicate through their eyes and body language.

“Your spatial awareness is going to make you a better musician,” Ma said at that October rehearsal, urging the musicians to sit closer together as they played.

On the Senn stage in December, he encouraged the musicians to play every note as if it represented a distinct part of nature, and he asked the audience whether they could hear the difference when the musicians played consciously thinking about nature. The second version, listeners agreed, sounded brighter, more expressive.

Ma's instructions grew more detailed when he met with the Civic's string-section leaders in a Symphony Center basement rehearsal room in January. True to his mantra of “total engagement,” the cellist originally had announced that he would work with the Civic on trips to Chicago in December, March and May (and gave them an email address for keeping in touch in between), but he added visits in January and April to spend more time with the orchestra in person, all while Colnot rehearsed them in the meantime.

“Try and draw the vibrations from your feet, from the earth,” he told the five string principals in a conversation that ranged from the technical points about bowing (“You lighten the bow, speed it up, put a spin on the sound”) to distinctions between the personal and impersonal, the latter of which would include nature (“Don't make it personal. Rocks are older than we are.”).

Ma is as amiable and supportive as you'd expect of someone who, upon receiving the Kennedy Center Honors in late 2011, prompted President Barack Obama to note enviously: “Everybody likes him.” But he also drops the occasional f-bomb, for comic effect as often as not, and isn't afraid to apply pressure when he's not getting what he wants to hear.

At one point he told violist Jonas Benson to maintain eye contact with the violinists. Another time he urged cellist Joshua Zajac to offer more “emotional commitment.” Benson and Zajac, two of the ensemble's more vocal members, took the instructions in stride, and none of the players was shy about engaging in give-and-take with their mentor. From all of them Ma wanted commitment of the breath, commitment of the eyes, the complete synchronicity of breathing and playing.

“You've got to feel like this is the last thing you'll ever do,” Ma said. “It's that imperative. If you don't feel it, how will the audience?”

The stage lights went out during the full Civic's rehearsal in March at Orchestra Hall. Moments earlier Ma had disappeared backstage, and when he reappeared in the semi-darkness, one eyebrow was cocked. The musicians continued playing, as they were expected to do.

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