The young musicians of the Civic Orchestra, as enamored as they were of the prospect of being mentored by Yo-Yo Ma, didn't see it coming.
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?”
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.
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.”
“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.”
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