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When Yo-Yo Ma joins CSO for a concert, crowd goes wild; and then the scene gets really mad

Submitted by on May 3, 2023 – 2:49 pm

Yo-Yo Ma performed the Elgar Cello Concerto with the CSO conducted by Carlos Miguel Prieto. (Todd Rosenberg photos)

Review: Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Carlos Miguel Prieto; Yo-Yo Ma, cello. May 1 at Orchestra Hall. 
By Lawrence B. Johnson

All that was lacking was the Guinness and step-dancers to turn the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s special concert with cellist Yo-Ya Ma into what the Irish call a hooley. it was a party, for sure, the May 1 event benefiting the musicians’ pension fund, and dancing in the aisles threatened to break out at any moment.

There was a lot of whooping, and it began the moment the lionized cellist strode onto the stage at the concert’s outset to play the Elgar concerto. But that ovation paled in comparison with the near delirium that erupted in the packed house at the conclusion of Ma’s elegant performance with the CSO led by Carlos Miguel Prieto.

In Ma’s hands, the Elgar concerto worked its restrained magic.

Though Elgar’s concerto runs a concise 26 minutes, nothing was offered before it to enlarge the program’s first half. The adoring audience was there for Ma’s star turn, and that’s what greeted them immediately. His indulgent, almost demure playing felt singularly true to the work’s Victorian roots. The queen was 20 years into her 64-year reign when Edward Elgar was born in 1857. His Cello Concerto, still one of the staples of the repertoire, soberly bespeaks that outwardly sedate culture just as it epitomizes the composer’s music generally. In Ma’s assured hands, the genteel piece certainly worked its magic on this occasion.

The audience response was at least as remarkable as the performance itself. The storm of delight came in waves, each seemingly higher and more vociferous than the one before. Here was one of classical music’s genuine rock stars, rocked in turn by fans who had come not just to listen but to adore. Still, there was some question as to whether Ma would accommodate the standing, dare I say screaming, crowd with an encore — until Prieto, with a grand churning motion of his arm, urged a redoubling of the adulatory madness.

It was Ma himself who finally quieted the house to make himself heard, announcing that he would indeed play an encore, a lovely little air by the great cellist Pablo Casals called “Song of the Birds.” Followed, of course, by more exuberant shouting but also by a bearer of brilliant red blossoms wrapped in paper. As the ovation roared on, Ma removed the stems one by one and handed them around to female members of the orchestra — then waved his farewell and vanished stage right.

CSO concertmaster Robert Chen and Ma saluted each other after the Elgar.

The real fascination of the concert’s second half, Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.4 in F minor, was to see whether, thus emotionally sated, the audience would come back for more or simply waft out into the night not wanting to sully that last sound of the solitary cello. But return they did for music as egregiously demonstrative as Elgar’s concerto is circumspectly reserved.

One might almost declare Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony music for the out-of-doors, so splendorous, expostulatory and, well, loud as it is. The Fourth unfolds like a series of ballet episodes punctuated by fanfares — tuneful, explosive and brilliant. Prieto went for the brilliance and the explosions, and the Chicago Symphony came well prepared to give the conductor all that he wanted.

Once again, the happy throng lavished its appreciation on maestro and musicians alike. Like every proper hooley, this one finally reached its end in a collective state of sublime contentment, and doubtless in some measure of spiritual inebriation.