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)

“That is surprising,” Zajac added.

“Really?” Ma said.

“You've been way more committed than I think anybody could have expected,” Benson said.

“That's very nice,” Ma said.

Larson said Ma “makes me at least remember that every note is important, every note has a meaning and has an image, and we're trying to communicate this whole bigger picture rather than just playing these notes that are written on the page by some old dead guy.”

She added that although many musicians share her excitement over the concert and collaboration with Ma, other Civic members remained more apprehensive than inspired.

“It's surprising to me how hard it is to get a whole huge group of 20-something-year-olds to be gung-ho about a project like this,” she said. “I think everyone is just afraid to fail, and that is understandable, and I don't want to fail either, but at the same time I guess I'm just so excited about it that I don't even care.”

Asked whether they were fearful about the concert, the group around the table did a collective head shake but did admit to some anxiety over not fulfilling their ever-rising expectations.

“Of course, I'm insecure and don't want to bring in sections at the wrong place, but I think a big part of learning is overcoming all of those insecurities and going for it,” violinist Emily Nash said.

What was everyone's biggest concern with less than a month to go?

“Train wreck,” Nash said, prompting laughs all around.

“I'm just hoping that everybody can be brought to the same place,” Ma said. “It's not about expectations. So forgive yourselves for anything that happens that's train-wrecky-like. Right? Because that always has the potential to happen, but when something like that happens, forgive yourselves, because you have something more important to do than acknowledge a train wreck and be concerned about it.”

Civic Orchestra manager Yoo-Jin Hong told the musicians she thinks their season with Ma “has created a new culture within Civic” and that a new maturity in their playing was apparent even when they performed other works.

“The music that you're making as a group is different, so I think we can only go from up here,” she said. “I don't see a way of failing, whatever happens at the performance.”

In a separate phone conversation, Colnot said: “There's more now of a sense of collegiality, camaraderie and listening to each other, and that affects their playing because they don't have the conductor to rely on. How it looks and how it sounds is different.”

Ma, who has long professed that society remains overly fixated on measurable forms of success, expressed gratitude that everyone had played along.

“In the beginning I was scared to death talking to you guys in October and had no idea whether you guys were going to think: This guy's crazy,” Ma told the musicians. “I had no idea whether this would fly. It was an idea. You guys had to own it and take it on; that would make this possible. So I was just kind of looking, watching to see how it became more rooted or seeded in your minds. It makes me very happy to see that.”

mcaro@tribune.com | Twtter @MarkCaro
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