This past Thursday and Friday, Yo-Yo Ma (the CSO’s Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant), Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra tackled the immensely challenging Lutosławski Cello Concerto. New music geeks hardly need be informed of what a rare opportunity it is to hear a musician of Mr Ma’s caliber in the performance of a difficult modernist work, and the hope I held out for the show was amply ratified. He is simply stunning in all respects – in his theatricality, in his seriousness and concentration, in his overwhelming control of the instrument. One has the sense that Dvořák and Saint-Saëns no longer pose challenges that Mr Ma finds interesting. The Lutosławski pushed him, pushed the orchestra, and pushed the audience.

Yo-Yo Ma © Stephen Danelian
Yo-Yo Ma
© Stephen Danelian

With the latter – maybe a little too much. The concerto begins with a cadenza that consists of a single short tone, which is repeated until a schizophrenic burst cuts across its smooth surface. The audience was restless. Many did not know what to make of this display of anti-virtuosity, and so when a trumpet blast broke the cellist’s opening cadenza, a terrifying moment, we heard – laughter. Nervous tittering? The laughter continued as the orchestra played the enormously complex brass fanfares which set multiple rhythmic frames in play. But it soon died down, thanks in part to Mr Ma’s theatricality of horror, and also, I suspect, because even the most cynical traditionalist cannot suppose that a composer would sustain a joke for so long and with such complexity.

Consider the way those opening repeated notes sounded – no two of them were the same. Mr Ma sometimes seems to launch notes straight from the fingerboard to the back of the room with a melodramatic vibrato and a thrusting gesture of his left hand, almost literally throwing the instrument forward. No new music elitist, and no populist either, he is unafraid to embody the full charge of whatever he feels is operative at that moment in the music, whether it is whimsy, or fear, or horror. His face is transparent.

Perhaps the best reason to hear works like the Cello Concerto live is to restore a spatial hearing of the orchestra, which is completely obliterated on recordings. The staccato duet between percussion at the back of the room and Mr Ma’s dancing bow at the front sounds different with fifty bodies sitting between them. Lutosławski’s textures shimmer across the orchestra’s surface, pooling here, spreading there, like light on the surface of a pond.

One of the best ways to describe unfamiliar, or difficult, or modern music to non-converts, I think, is to emphasize its contributions to an expanded vocabulary of texture – a fact very much in evidence on this program, with the Lutosławski sandwiched as it is between Sibelius and Tchaikovsky. In this tonal repertoire, the CSO did its customary thing, which is to play with a formidably smooth tone, with clarity and a little coolness. Some of it was superb, and beautiful; it is hard to readjust one’s ears after the focus demanded by Lutosławski’s labyrinthine imagination. If the Cello Concerto requires a Lamborghini, the rest of the program felt as though it needed only a Tonka truck.

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