Spring 2020 Reflections (Part 1): Yo-Yo Ma / Civic 100, Gardiner’s Beethoven, Blomstedt Returns to Chicago

Finding some time to catch up on the blog posts, and I thought I’d provide an update on the most recent set of concerts that I got the chance to attend in early March, before the whole Illinois shelter-in-place order was put into place.

First things first, on the first day of March, the Civic Centennial concert took place, with the special soloist of Yo-Yo Ma playing the ever-so-brilliant Dvorak Cello Concerto, which is (in my humble opinion) the greatest piece ever written for the cello. Originally, this concert was to have taken place last spring 2019, with Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting, but due to the whole strike, the concert was postponed and rescheduled to this year. Salonen no longer conducted this concert, but rather, the podium responsibilities went to Ken-David Masur (son of the late conductor, Kurt Masur), who was named, last summer, as the Civic Orchestra’s new principal conductor. Since this concert was a Civic concert, the tickets were free (unless you wanted to hash out some serious bucks to get a reserved ticket and a dinner invite), so I managed to score some prime real-estate seats for me and my friends. Namely, I was sitting literally right in front of Yo-Yo Ma as he went through the Dvorak, and I have to say, it was one of the coolest experiences I’ve ever had in Orchestra Hall. He’s one of the world’s best cellists (if not the best), and to get that up-close look as to how he approaches and performs music was just incredible. I’m sure the score is seared into his memory (heck, when my dad used to live in Richmond, Virginia, many, many years ago, my dad and his friends also saw Ma perform the Dvorak live in concert) but still, it was absolutely amazing to see him just look and relaxingly smile at the nearby orchestra players while it wasn’t his turn playing, but then immediately just switch into an intense music-making mode when it was his section. Could not have asked for a better performance of the Dvorak, and I’m glad that the first live performance I ever heard of this monumental piece was with Ma as the soloist.

Yo-Yo Ma and Ken-David Masur, after the Dvorak cello concerto!!

After the concert concluded, Ma gave another encore piece, but not before making one of the greatest speeches I’ve heard in Orchestra Hall (e.g. he cited Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood!!). Of course, this probably doesn’t come off that exciting to most people, but if, like me (and probably a lot of people my generation), you first heard of Yo-Yo Ma when you saw him on PBS on the TV show Arthur, you’ll understand why this was a great moment 😀 I have a short clip of the speech, up on my Instagram—check it out!

Two days later, on the third of March, I headed over across the street to the Harris Theater (near Millennium Park), to catch the last concert of Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s and the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique’s Beethoven Festival, in which, over the course of a week, they were also making the traversal through all of Beethoven’s 9 symphonies, in addition to a few other selected works of Beethoven. I unfortunately couldn’t catch every concert, but managed to hear the last program featuring Beethoven’s 6th and 7th symphonies. The first time I ever heard of the Orchestre Révolutionnaire was last spring in Prof. Davies’ graduate musicology seminar on Beethoven, as we were looking at the “historically informed” performance practice of Beethoven’s works, particularly the third symphony “Eroica”. There’s a BBC movie / dramatized docufilm that goes over the experience of Beethoven premiering this symphony, and while the film is a little too over-dramatized (in my opinion), it was interesting to get to hear the Orchestre Révolutionnaire (who are acting and performing in the film) perform the symphony in this context. And so, with a modern orchestra (the CSO) just a couple of blocks away doing its own traversal of the Beethoven symphonies, I finally got the chance to hear a “period” / “baroque” orchestra tackle the same works. And while there is a rawer sound produced by the instruments of this type of orchestra, which may elucidate certain aspects of the score that may become blurred in a modern orchestra, I still do prefer the sound of a modern orchestra. I don’t know if whether or not this is a consequence of the architectures of the instruments used in this type of orchestra, but it seems like the ability to play dynamics was somehow hampered or diminished, as there seemed to be a physical maximum/minimum output that the instruments were able to produce, and so the ability to incorporate different colors and shadings was somewhat lost during the performance…which is probably why Gardiner had to really amp up the tempi during these performances, particularly for the 7th symphony (otherwise, it would be hard to generate any momentum otherwise). Then again, maybe it’s just my ears not being accustomed to the whole period instruments…nevertheless, it was quite interesting to see the orchestra stand up throughout the performance—not sure if that really accomplishes anything substantial in terms of the final musical interpretation, but interesting nonetheless.

The Beethoven Festival comes to an end with the 6th and 7th symphonies.

Two days later, on March 5th, I headed back to Symphony Center to hear Maestro Herbert Blomstedt make his return back to Chicago since his last visit in 2018, to conduct the CSO in a program of Mozart and Brahms. The Mozart was the 23rd piano concerto, played by Bertrand Chamayou, and the Brahms was the 2nd Symphony. Bread and butter repertoire, but nevertheless, always refreshing to hear when tackled by a veteran conductor and orchestra who are both wholly dedicated to producing the highest levels of music. Blomstedt, who is a youthful 92 years old, has just about as much energy and vitalism (if not much more!) as any of the youngsters who step onto the podium, and so I am very much looking to the next time he comes back to Chicago.

Maestro Blomstedt takes his bow!

A minor note about the Blomstedt concert—my friend and I scored some nice center box seats (which is a very rare occasion considering the price of these seats), and everyone knows that the tradition of the box seats is to rotate at intermission (there’s a notice that comes up when you try to purchase the tickets online and a built-in sign/placard on the wall of the physical box itself. Now, I’m pretty much a regular at the hall, usually attending every week, and so it really bugs me when there are people (who are typically older, white, and obviously richer) who think that they somehow are more privileged to be in Orchestra Hall than myself. Case in point, there were two old ladies who happened to be sitting in our box, and they took the front two seats during the first half of the program (the Mozart piano concerto). Of course, my friend and I expected that they would both move after intermission, but after the orchestra had already come out after intermission, they still were sitting in their seats, pretending as if they didn’t know about the policy (even though everyone else in the surrounding boxes followed the policy!). I politely asked the both of them to move, and they at first pretended they didn’t hear me (who knows, maybe that was the case, seeing that they were both older and maybe suffered from hearing loss or dementia???…that was meant to be sarcastic, by the way). After repeated requests, (and to be honest, I would’ve gone to get the usher if they still didn’t move) they finally and reluctantly got up (without making any eye contact or sign of being sorry, mind you) and moved behind us. Honestly, it’s truly sad and pathetic that there are still these types of people who populate the concert hall, and it’s one of the reasons why classical music still gets the reputation of being elitist and pompous. I’ve tried to change this perception as much as I can, especially through sharing my own personal experiences of learning music (which, for the most part, has been incredible), but I’m definitely not going to be afraid to call out this kind of BS behavior when it happens. Whatever though, I’m pretty sure the two of them (whom I know to be regulars at the hall because I’ve definitely seen them around before) have never gotten the types of experiences I’ve had, and I for one, am glad that they’ll never get to.

still smiling 🙂

Anyways, I can’t believe that these three concerts were chronologically spaced two days from each other, making for a very fruitful first week of March…very much waiting for the day that this type of packed schedule can make its way back into our lives. In the meantime, I’ll continue to work from home (the research still doesn’t stop even if the lab is closed!) and get another blog post up on my thoughts about the whole coronavirus situation. Stay safe, everyone!

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