The world's most celebrated cellist, who's the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's creative consultant, was chatting with the Civic members on the Orchestra Hall stage in October about their May performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 6, aka the Pastoral Symphony. He also was discussing something else, something deeper: His desire to impart to the musicians, most in their early 20s, “the skills you need to have a life in music.”
After all, these are tense times for working — and hoping-to-work — classical musicians, what with so many orchestras cutting budgets and jobs disappearing during this never-ending economic slump. But being afraid isn't going to help, Ma said, and he would love for the musicians to learn the following during their two-year Civic tenures: “how to let go of fear.”
Then he scared them.
Pondering their Beethoven's Sixth performance, the 57-year-old cellist suggested: “Maybe you could do it outdoors. And maybe you could do it without music. And maybe you might want to do it without a conductor.”
There was tittering and mumbling around the stage — some implied combination of “Did he just suggest that?” and “Wait, it's Yo-Yo Ma, so let's not freak.” Finally one female musician let out a single word:
Ma turned toward her.
“All of these together sound pretty crazy,” she continued, meaning that delivering an excellent Beethoven's Sixth is challenging enough without doing it from memory, without a conductor and in the great outdoors.
“You haven't done any of the things you think are crazy to do,” Ma replied.
“I think crazy's great,” a guy chimed in, “but I want to do it well at the same time.”
“I believe you not only can do it but can do a kick-ass version of it that's going to set everybody back on their ear,” Ma responded.
Whether everyone on that stage believed Ma was beside the point. The Civic's mission for the next seven months had been laid out, and the musicians were duty bound to accept.
Seven months later, May 11, members of the Civic Orchestra will perform portions of Beethoven's Sixth at a couple of locations along North Michigan Avenue, beginning with a chamber ensemble tackling the first movement from memory without a conductor at the Apple Store at 3 p.m. before the full Civic ensemble moves to another unannounced (i.e. surprise) location. These performances are in conjunction with the Friends of the Chicago River's annual Chicago River Day, as well as the CSO's own Rivers Festival.
The Civic will play the entire Pastoral Symphony on May 13 at Orchestra Hall, with the orchestra again working without a conductor and playing from memory. The program, also part of the Rivers Festival, will feature Ma as soloist on Haydn's Cello Concerto in C major as well.
What happened between October and May was no mere memorization drill. Rather, it was an attempt at transformation. Could these musicians, with the guidance of Ma and Civic principal conductor Cliff Colnot, not only learn the notes but become the music — and could they make that music live inside anyone who receives it? Could the 90 or so Civic players somehow agree on how to interpret every moment of this symphony away from a conductor's baton? And would this collaborative experience empower them when seeking future jobs?
These are lofty questions that were well beyond what the Civic Orchestra was prepared to process that October day.
“Your body posture should be the posture of the music,” Ma told them from the stage.
Not everyone was fully upright.
“How can you turn a piece of information into something that's living?”