"A Distant Mirror" Review- Yo-Yo Ma with cellists and percussionists puts on a great concert of music inspired by Shakespeare and Cervantes

On Sunday, June 12, 2016, celebrated cellist and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s (CSO) Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant Yo-Yo Ma presented “A Distant Mirror”, the last concert of the 2015/2016 Symphony Center Presents PowerShares QQQ Chamber Music Series, at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Avenue, Chicago. He was joined by 9 other musicians: CSO cellists Loren Brown, Richard Hirschl, Katinka Kleijn, CSO principal cello John Sharp, CSO principal percussionist Cynthia Yeh, Silk Road Ensemble cellist Mike Block and percussionist Shane Shanahan, and guest cellists Jeffrey Zeigler and Ashley Bathgate.The program, curated by Ma, and part of the citywide Shakespeare 400 Celebration, was inspired by the book “A Distant Mirror”, (Knopf, 1978), by famed American historian Barbara Tuchman, a narrative history promoting the premise “that the death and suffering of the 14th century reflect that of the 20th century”. However, this musical program focused on similarities between “the cultural landscape of the 16th and 17th centuries and our own times.”

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma and other musicians processed from the back of Symphony Center

The cello-based “early music,” modern in arrangement, was curated as a response to the cultural accomplishments of the era in question, including the works of the two literary giants of the time, William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes. The ambitious program, with two encores, (one a reprise), included Mike Block’s arrangement of Incan music and newly arranged versions of works by Juan Aranes, Claude Gervaise and Ali Ufki Bey.The participants put on a show interspersed with  much information given to the audience –(although Ma announced at one point “I’m tired of talking” and moved to his cello)--and obviously took terrific delight in each other. It was truly entertaining as well as enlightening to watch the various percussion instrument forms, as well as to observe the cellists tapping their soundboards and plucking strings with their fingers, sans bow.

The musicians of "A Distant Mirror"

 The program began with the musicians marching down the aisle of Symphony Center, with straps allowing them to carry as well as play the instruments, to the tune of “Hanacpachap Cuissinin”, a traditional Incan melody arranged by Block. It’s an anonymous hymn to the Virgin Mary, published in 1631, the earliest work of vocal polyphony printed in “the New World”, and it heralded the other vocalizations to come on this program.  The piece has been extensively recorded since the 1990’s, with most performances, as here, performing only a few verses. As they entered, Ma called out a line from Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night, “If music be the food of love, play on”. The audience loved this, and paid close attention to all the explanatory remarks, such as when Block put the conundrum, “What do you see when 2 mirrors face each other? Infinity”.

Guest cellist Ashley Bathgate, Silk Road Ensemble cellist Mike Block and Yo-Yo Ma

Three more of the works in the program were arranged by Block: Juan Aranes’ “Chacona: A La Vida Bona”, or “To the good life”, (reprised as the second encore), Ali Ufki Bez’ “Nikriz Pesrev”, and Francisco Salinas’ “Romance del Conde Claros”. Percussionist Shane Shanahan, who played a variety of instruments in diverse ways, and also chatted up the audience, composed “Saidi Swing”, performed by himself and Cynthia Yeh, ranging back and forth over the deeply suggestive melodies embraced. At one point, he held a round drum on it’s side, wet his fingers, ran them across the skin, and caused the tambourine to wail! Another very lovely piece was “Four Dances from the Third Book of Dances”, composed by the Frenchmen Claude Gervaise, arranged by Boston Cello Quartet member Blaise Dejardin, an instrumental work of surpassing beauty.

Silk Road Ensemble Percussionist Shane Shanahan and CSO Principal Percussionist Cynthia Yeh

The program’s music ranged across Asia and Europe, and was done in different groupings of artists. One piece sounded like madrigals, another like a sarabande. Some of the sounds were wild and gypsyish, some of the drum sounds quiet and remote. The audience was told inspiration had come from Sicily, from a rhythm of Northern Egypt, from zephyrs, from Buddhist chants and medieval Sephardic traditions.  “Mirror for a Prince”, by Colin Jacobsen, was inspired by Persian and specifically Zoroastrian religious music.  After a rousing round of applause, the full ensemble performed  as encore an arrangement of Vaughan Williams “Fantasy on a Theme of Thomas Tallis”, one of the quintessential composers of sacred music, followed by the above-mentioned reprisal.

Principal Cello John Sharp and CSO Cellos Katinka Kleijn and Loren Brown

This reviewer will long remember the variety and diversity of the music, the haunting melodies interspersed with mesmerizing percussion, and the words of  Mike Block and Yo-Yo Ma, who explained, “We go into the past to gain clarity amid the chaos, to learn how to do better. Love conquers fear”.

For information on other great programs by the CSO, including special concerts and side series, see the CSO website



Photos courtesy of Todd Rosenberg


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