Yo-Yo Ma, currently the Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, along with members from the same orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, took the stage at Symphony Center for a single night last Wednesday. The program began with the most interesting number of the night: the complete Bach Two-Part Inventions, BWV 772–786, originally for keyboard, but here arranged into a kaleidescope of chamber formations (not only duos) among a group consisting of marimba, oboe, flute, viola, English horn, piccolo, bass clarinet, trumpet, trombone, French horn, and – of course – a cello.

© Michael O'Neill
© Michael O'Neill

In his typically disarming manner, Yo-Yo Ma – clearly, and despite the theatrics of equality, the center of focus of the night – began by picking up a microphone and relating an anecdote about how the arrangement of the inventions, by composer Dmitri Yanov-Yanovsky, came to be. The story’s main function was to create an atmosphere of intimacy and ease, to smudge the boundary between the performance and the exterior world of the Chicago Loop. It certainly did that. A touch of theatricality, or even simply a basic attention to how the choreography of a concert performance is perceived, helps too: in response to Ma’s expressed desire that we feel as if we were simply at someone’s house, and Yo-Yo Ma and a bunch of CSO musicians happened to be there, and someone rummaged out of an old piano bench a worn copy of the Bach Two-Part Inventions – well, what would happen? – the stage lights were brought way down, and spot lighting traced the various entrances and exits of the instruments across the fifteen numbers of the set.

The effect of the lighting was somewhere between that of aromatherapy candles and a full-on massage. And, it focused the hearing – or perhaps my sharpened sense of the counterpoint in these keyboard exercises was for the simple reason that different instrumental timbres took each line, and each number, in a way distancing the upper and lower voices in such a way that one could almost listen to them separately. Only the ineluctable bond of the harmony garlanded them together in an entirely relaxed and almost casual union. It was a lovely effect. Whether performing fifteen inventions in a row and banking entirely on the sustained interest of this effect was a miscalculation is another question. It baffles me why the tone and dynamic throughout was one of spa-like gentleness – why, for instance, couldn’t one of the duets between brass instruments take on a more brilliant, forceful character?

The other two pieces of the night were less inventive in their presentation, but perfectly acceptably played: Dvořák’s “American” String Quartet and Beethoven’s early Septet, Op. 20. Here again Mr Ma was joined by a rotating cast of musicians from the CSO. It is wonderful, I am sure, for both the excellent musicians from the orchestra and their regular viewing public to have an opportunity to hear their abilities as chamber musicians in this hall, although the excessively light and innocuous program, at least for me, was a rather strange misfire. The program notes for the Dvořák quote his description of the work as “something really melodious and simple” and goes on hastily to defend the work against the idea that it is merely simple. And the note for the Septet remarks on Beethoven’s dismay at people’s insistence on hearing this inconsequential early work at the exclusion of his later ones. It isn’t ahistorical to spend a night listening to pleasant and not particularly dramatic music of this kind, but it does seem incongruous in light of the commotion that will accompany any appearance by Mr Ma at Symphony Center. To think that so many city-dwellers took the night off, hired baby-sitters, took taxis or the CTA to the Loop, dressed up, posed in the lobby, and paid handsome sums to hear a bunch of two-part inventions and a couple of pleasant diversions (however well played)... A strange night indeed.