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Barely audible note from Yo-Yo Ma’s cello builds to greatness with CSO


◆ 3 p.m. Sunday

◆ Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan

◆ Tickets, $39–$282
◆ (312) 294-3000;

It’s not as if the Chicago Symphony Orchestra has exactly been lazing about.

Arriving home a week ago from a jam-packed tour of Russia and Italy, there was jetlag to get over and all the settling in required after 15 days away from home. There were rehearsals for concerts Saturday night and Sunday afternoon in Symphony Center, and, with Yo-Yo Ma in town as guest soloist, the extra buzz of a rare open rehearsal on Saturday morning.

But the orchestra sounded remarkably relaxed and fresh at Saturday night’s subscription concert conducted by the impressive Mexican conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto. The repertoire — Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 and a zesty “Huapango’’ by Jose Pablo Moncayo tossed in to honor Mexico’s Cinco de Mayo holiday — couldn’t have been more familiar. Ma has been serving as the CSO’s creative consultant, and the rapport between soloist and orchestra Saturday night was especially close. Everybody on stage seemed happy to be there, and the large, enthusiastic audience, energized by several contingents of young people, added to the festive air.

Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, with its dark, dramatic colors and expressive folk-flavored melodies, is deservedly one of classical music’s most popular works. It would seem, however, that there is little new for performers or audiences to find in it at this point. But under Prieto’s sensitive baton, the intimate conversation between orchestra and soloist revealed some unexpected pleasures.

Throughout the piece, Ma’s cello was a highly expressive but often hushed voice, drawing us into Dvorak’s emotional world rather than pushing forward to grab us by the lapels. The interplay between Ma’s tensile cello line and a shifting cast of wind solos was particularly arresting. In the opening movement, Richard Graef’s clear, golden flute and other winds came and went. Their flights of brief, solo song swirled around Ma’s quiet cello like the calls of protective, hovering birds. In the concerto’s last moments, a barely audible single note from Ma’s cello slowly swelled. As it grew, the orchestra began to join in, eventually building to the concerto’s thrillingly triumphant closing bars. It was a remarkable moment, matched only by the rapt silence of the audience during Ma’s encore, the noble sarabande movement from Bach’s Third Cello Suite.

Prieto crafted an earthy, robust reading of Moncayo’s lively tribute to Mexican folk rhythms. The CSO’s “Huapango’’ danced and swayed, but this was full-bodied peasant dancing, not that of light-footed, flirty senoritas. In Beethoven’s Second Symphony, Prieto and a highly responsive CSO crafted a satisfying balance between classical elegance and romantic drama.

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