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Yo-Yo Ma, Renee Fleming perform for Thompson Center lunch crowd

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Updated: April 21, 2012 8:08AM

Mike Koetting, a deputy director at the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services, had just gotten off the L at the Thompson Center Monday, and was heading toward the elevators to go to a government meeting on the Affordable Health Care Act when the haunting strains of “Vocalise” by Rachmaninoff snapped his head hard to the side.

He moved toward the center of the lower level food court like a man in a trance, his battered leather briefcase held limply at his side.

“I’m a music fan,” he said.

A few feet away from Koetting were two of the great musicians of our era, soprano Renee Fleming and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, performing a brief unannounced recital for the lunch crowd, passersby, jurors on their break and a select group who had been tipped off ahead of time, including Gov. Pat Quinn.

Members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra backed the pair, making their debut performance together.

Some came without exactly knowing what to expect. Judy Kaufman had heard from a friend who volunteers at the CSO that something musical and noteworthy would be happening, and so brought her daughter, Vered, and grandson Jonah, 3, who just started studying the violin.

“She told us to make sure we didn’t miss this,” said Judy Kaufman, who lives downtown. They were delighted to learn who they had come to hear. “We had no idea. We are tremendous music lovers, and are so impressed with Renee Fleming and Yo-Yo Ma, the giants of opera and classical music.”

A few minutes before the performance began, people going down the escalators were handed programs explaining that the event was a joint production of the CSO and the Lyric Opera, and is part of programs at both institutions designed to encourage music in community settings and foster a greater public appreciation for the arts.

“Awesome,” said Fanny Clonch, a French teacher from Curie High School, taking a program. She was giving a tour to 17 students from France, and steered them over to listen.

Three students from the Tribeca Flashpoint digital vocational school happened by to patronize the Panda Express when they noticed the commotion.

“Who is it?” asked Jack Whelan, 18, sipping a Mountain Dew. Told Yo-Yo Ma was playing, Whelan, a musical recording arts student, replied, “he’s sick,” a slang term of approval meaning “cool” or “awesome.”

Choruses from Lake View High School, the Chicago High School for the Arts and Merit School of Music began the three-song program about 12:40 p.m. with a traditional South African folk song, and it was ended with a rendition of “America the Beautiful.” It was to have been a sing-along, but few in the crowd of several hundred tried to compete with one of America’s premiere vocalists.

While some patrons stood on chairs or crowded for a closer look, others blithely talked on their cell phones or continued their full-throated conversations or listened to their own music on earbuds. The door to the Department of Motor Vehicles office was open, but the music heard inside was very soft, nearly drowned out by booming announcements such as “Now serving B291 at counter No. 6.”

Fleming, the creative consultant for the Lyric, said that she and Ma, creative consultant to the CSO, had spent the morning talking with students, and that, coupled with their performance, had buoyed the artists.

“It’s inspiring to us and gives us a lot,” she said.

The entire performance lasted less than 15 minutes and Mike Koetting headed to his meeting. What did he think of the music?

“It was great,” he said, and then laughed. “They’re good.”

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