Yo Yo Ma Plays Tchaikovsky at Ravinia / by Doyle Armbrust

Traverse the halls of the music schools of Northwestern or DePaul and you will inevitably hear the tortured strains of Tchaikovsky’s tedious Variations on a Rococo Theme through the practice-room doors. Like the Lalo Violin Concerto (Symphonie Espagnole), the piece has a habit of bringing out the worst in performers as well as inspiring teachers to reach for the nearest bottle of Xanax.

This is what makes Yo-Yo Ma’s appearance at Ravinia so compelling, as it is only in the hands of such an extraordinary soloist that such a wretched work can begin to shimmer. The Chicago Symphony’s first creative consultant pairs the Rococo with the Russian’s emotionally wrought Andante Cantabile in B major, an opulent bit of writing that Ma is well-loved for performing. Those who have seen Atom Egoyan’s Exotica will recognize the anchor to Friday’s program, Prokofiev’s crepuscular Romeo and Juliet Suite. There’s just no brass like the CSO brass, and the intimidating battery will be on full display in the opening to this Star Wars “Imperial March”–like (or is it the other way around?) score. Eat your heart out, John Williams.

- Doyle Armbrust

published in Time Out Chicago on August 3rd, 2011