The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s “French Reveries and Passions” festival continued on Sunday with an afternoon of chamber music featuring Yo-Yo Ma and members of the CSO. Superior musicianship was displayed throughout the concert, and in addition to that, Yo-Yo Ma demonstrated why he is a classical music icon and ambassador with a huge, warm personality that invited and urged the audience to savor the French chamber music offerings.

Alexander Hanna and Yo-Yo Ma © Todd Rosenberg
Alexander Hanna and Yo-Yo Ma
© Todd Rosenberg

Ravel’s song cycle Chansons madécasses opened the program, an exotic work both in its subject matter (Madagascan songs) and unusual instrumentation (voice, piano, flute, cello). “Nahandove” was sensual in an understated sort of way. Ma opened with a silky, sussurating tone that perfectly accompanied J’nai Bridges’ melancholy vocals, yearning for the pleasures of love. “Aoua!” began abruptly with a visceral cry. The instrumentalists provided additional timbral interest in this movement, with flutist Jennifer Gunn exploring unusual tones reminiscent of a panpipe, and pianist Orion Weiss and Ma combining low, dark pitches to create an ominous drone. The triptych concluded with “Il est doux”, sung with appropriate languor as at the end of a long day. Again, Weiss and Ma joined forces to create compelling sonorities, this time with high cello harmonics and tinkling piano notes for a crystalline effect. There is a tongue-in-cheek ending, in which Bridges stopped singing and suddenly said, “Go and prepare the repast”. This humorous moment was set up wonderfully by Ma’s expectant body language, and earned plenty of laughter from the audience.

The cello and bass duet, Dual by Matthew Aucoin, followed Ravel. Ma spoke to the audience before playing this new work, likening the interplay between himself and bassist Alexander Hanna to that of a kitten and puppy, respectively. This was an abundantly fun piece, and lived up to its punning name – there was a bit of duel between bass and cello as they traded off material. The piece began with an agitated fluttering on a single note, then evolved through various motifs and melodies, including a saucy moment reminiscent of a Piazzola tango, a tritone interjection from the bass sounding much like a siren, and a gradual unwinding towards the end, like a train chugging to a halt. The work finished cutely with the bass playing Frère Jacques, à la Mahler's First, and the audience appreciated the reference with a chuckle. Ma and Hanna brought their full commitment to the work, making for an energizing performance.

A more standard, but equally zealous duet followed, Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello, featuring Ma and CSO assistant concertmaster Stephanie Jeong. This tricky piece put both performers through their paces, and they rose to the occasion with a gutsy, evocative rendition. The first movement opened with both instruments playing with a cool, flute-like sound devoid of the warmth of vibrato. This was contrasted in the rollicking second movement, with both violin and cello showing off their pizzicato. When the music shifted to a gypsy feel, Jeong played with feistiness and grit. The third movement provided yet more contrast, with an overarching sense of stillness. In a commendable display of pure intonation, Jeong and Ma closed the movement with perfect fifths, intervals that recall Medieval chants. The final movement was a virtuosic affair with featuring plenty of rustic flair. Bows ricocheted off the string to create a galloping feel, and Ma showed off his incredible pizzicato; at the end he cradled his instrument so that it seemed to be a giant guitar. The thunderous final chord from the two brought on a chorus of enthusiastic bravos.

The program concluded with Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time. Ma joined with pianist Weiss again, as well as Baird Dodge on violin, and J. Lawrie Bloom on clarinet. The first movement began with characterful birdsong from Dodge and Bloom, playing a nightingale and blackbird, respectively. A declamation from Bloom heralded a move to the second movement, cataclysmic in its sonority and title (“Vocalise”, for the Angel who announces the end of time). Bloom stood up for the third movement, a monologue for clarinet. The challenging slow tempo and “dal niente” (from nothing) beginnings require total command of the clarinet, which Bloom demonstrated well.

From this sparse, rather bleak movement came some respite when Dodge and Ma returned for the fourth movement, which featured songful snippets of melody with a hint of cheekiness to them. The fifth movement was a solo for cello and piano. Ma began with delicate beauty, which transformed to overt expressivity as the music intensified. The fiery sixth movement featured all instruments playing in unison. Contrasting with this unanimity was the range of instrumental colors (particularly from the strings) in the next movement. Dodge and Ma’s col legno, snapping pizzicatos, and wailing glissandos all added to the texture of this movement. The piece concludes with a violin and piano solo, similar to the fifth movement. Dodge spun a beautiful tone, particularly in the higher registers, while Weiss urged him on with the piano’s chordal ostinato. This is one of those pieces that ends with a hush, so that one savours the silence rather than burst into applause immediately. When the audience finally brought their hands together, it was a long ovation for an exceptional afternoon of chamber music.

*****