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Yo-Yo Ma, CSO players offer a robust program of chamber music

Sometimes when superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma comes to Chicago, he flies well below the public’s radar. As creative consultant to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he often works behind the scenes, helping the CSO develop program ideas and make contact with Chicagoans who don’t necessarily spend much time at Symphony Center, the CSO’s home base.

This week, however, Ma has been in the Symphony Center spotlight. On Monday, he appeared with the Civic Orchestra, the CSO’s training ensemble. On Wednesday, he returned to Orchestra Hall with a small band of CSO and Civic members in chamber works by Bach, Dvorak and Beethoven. It was an evening of intimate, warm-hearted music-making, the sort of concert that sends performers and listeners home with smiles on their faces.

Two of the pieces were well-known favorites: Beethoven’s sprightly Septet in E-Flat Major, Op. 20, and Dvorak’s robust String Quartet No. 12 in F Major, Op. 96 (“American”). But Ma rarely limits his programs to the tried and true. The concert Wednesday opened with something unusual, a version of Bach’s Two-Part Inventions, originally written for keyboard, arranged for musical forces that included marimba, cello, bass clarinet and trumpet. Composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky, a Uzbekistan native who participates in Ma’s Silk Road project, did the arrangement.

The concert’s atmosphere was spontaneous and collegial. The aim wasn’t the polished perfection of ensembles like the Emerson String Quartet, which have been playing together for decades. The idea was to gather some gifted musician friends and turn them loose on music they rarely get a chance to perform onstage.

“We want you to feel like we’re in your house,’’ said Ma in witty remarks before the Bach Inventions. “This is what you get when you invite us to your house.”

There were occasional ragged spots in the 15 Bach Inventions, which featured Ma, five CSO players and three from the Civic. With the musicians arranged in a wide arc across the stage, the sonic balance between players on the far ends was sometimes uneven. But the contrasting timbres, from darkly luminous marimba to bright, piercing piccolo, cast a new light on Bach’s ingeniously entwined melodies. Cynthia Yeh’s glowing marimba and Ma’s warm cello blended eloquently in the fleet, light-hearted Invention No. 1. Paired with viola, Charles Vernon’s trombone puffed and danced with easy grace in the fast-paced Invention No. 4.

Dvorak’s familiar string quartet, performed Wednesday by violinists Yuan-Qing Yu and Hermine Gagne, violist Li-Kuo Chang and Ma, sounded full-bodied and polished.

In the Beethoven Septet, Yu’s violin set a courtly but generally merry mood, matched by Ma and five CSO colleagues: Chang, Alexander Hanna, bass; Stephen Williamson, clarinet; William Buchman, bassoon, and Daniel Gingrich, horn. When Yu stood to acknowledge the audience’s vociferous applause, her colleagues declined to stand as well. Smiling, they forced the surprised Yu to take a solo bow as they joined in the applause. Good friends, good music, a good evening.

Wynne Delacoma, the Sun-Times classical music critic from 1991 to 2006, is a free-lance contributor.

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