Yo-Yo Ma joins forces with Kenwood Academy

Yo-Yo Ma rehearses Friday, June 9, with an orchestra made up of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and students at Kenwood Academy High School, 5015 S. Blackstone Ave. – Todd Rosenberg Photography

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

Where to start? Yo-Yo Ma performing as a member of an orchestra and not as first chair, but last. The son of Isaac Stern conducting in Hyde Park. Local high school students performing side-by-side with a professional orchestra.

It was a truly fun and feel-good event at Kenwood Academy Saturday night when the Civic Orchestra of Chicago came to the Patrick R. Allen Memorial Auditorium at Kenwood Academy to give a free concert. The performance hall was full of eager listeners who embraced the night’s proceedings with enthusiasm and warmth.

The Civic Orchestra of Chicago is one of the country’s leading training programs for emerging professional musicians. The guest conductor described them as an “asset and jewel for Chicago.” These young players (average age looks to be in the mid-twenties) came to Hyde Park to perform one work each by Beethoven and Sibelius. But sandwiched between these were three shorter pieces where the Civic members expanded their ranks with Kenwood Academy students joining the orchestra.

The evening’s conductor was Michael Stern, son of the acclaimed violinist Isaac Stern. He currently serves as music director of the Kansas City Symphony.

The large orchestra created by joining Civic and Kenwood players reacted marvelously to Stern’s direction. They opened this portion of the concert with Vivaldi’s Concerto for Two Cellos in G Minor (in an arrangement by Julian Lloyd Webber). It featured a solo pairing of a lifetime for one young Kenwood student: Philippe Kunze got to play along side Yo-Yo Ma.

The performance was energetic and full of warmth. Ma was fully committed to a true partnership with his co-soloist, offering lots of eye contact and winning and encouraging smiles for him. Kunze was not perfect, suffering some nervous intonation problems, but he was plucky, articulate, and imbued with verve. It was a pleasure to hear him play with Ma. The orchestra created a wonderful palatte of music for the soloists to adorn with their engaging work.

This was followed by J.S. Bach’s “Sleepers Wake” (arranged by Brubaker) where Stern elicited attractive, smooth sound from the orchestra. The brass was particularly notable, with the high school students blending well with the professionals.

The final piece for the grouped orchestra was an arrangement of Paul Desmond’s jazz classic, “Take Five.” The slightly tricky 5/4 time signature (from which comes the title) was no problem for the high school players. Every orchestral section had its moment to shine, and the results were pleasing. There was swing and joy in the music and whoops and hollers of appreciation from the audience when it was over.

The concert opened with the Civic performing Beethoven’s “Leonore” Overture No. 3. It was a smile-making surprise to observe Yo-Yo Ma (who serves as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant) take a seat at the very back of the cello section.
Stern led a splendid performance that emphasized clarity and vitality. The phrasing was pretty, the balance was exemplary, and the effect was wonderful. Even the off-stage trumpet came through with the right amount of audible sound and dramatic distance.

The Civic closed out the concert with the Symphony No. 2 by Sibelius. It was a spirited success with Stern officiating over well-executed dynamics, dramatic creation of tension, and skillful work in the very rapid sections.

The strings gleamed, the winds were haunting, and the brass was perky. The double-basses were exemplary. Sibelius gives them some important moments and six young men of the section were stylish and polished throughout.

Stern told the audience at the beginning of the concert that the Beethoven and the Sibelius pieces were chosen because they are “music of liberation, music of strength, and music of truth.” He and the players showed this to be true.

It’s wonderful that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association (CSOA) brought the Civic to Hyde Park. The Kenwood students had a chance to rehearse with the Civic and be coached, as well as learn a little of how a professional orchestra operates. What a marvelous thing for high school musicians. Kudos to the CSOA.