Last summer at Ravinia, Yo-Yo Ma was greeting a long line of fans backstage when he spotted a young local composer, Fengshi Yang, who’d asked to write a piece for him. He took a look at her manuscript and hummed a few bars; when he nodded his approval, she beamed with relief. The 43-year-old Ma is most young composers’ dream cellist–not only does his marquee name guarantee an enthusiastic audience and repeat performances, but his experience and empathy make a good composition sound great and a great composition sound immortal. He’s played and recorded just about everything in the cello canon, yet he embraces the new like a kid in a toy store. He’s accompanied Bobby McFerrin’s lip-contorting vocalese, for instance, and experimented with the MIT Media Laboratory’s Tod Machover to design a virtual “hyperinstrument” to augment the cello. In the early 90s another MIT professor, award-winning composer John Harbison, wrote the concerto Ma will perform here, an unusual joint commission by the Chicago and Boston symphony orchestras. Harbison’s music displays an expressive eclecticism with a fond emphasis on the Baroque; though well crafted, on paper its character is often indistinct. In writing this concerto, however, Harbison collaborated closely with Ma, even trying out orchestral passages on the piano for him to critique, and when the cellist plays it, it takes on his personality. I heard it several years ago on a broadcast from Boston and still vividly remember his rapturous, hyperkinetic, and eloquent solo turns. Also on the program, which will be conducted by Daniel Barenboim, are Brahms’s Symphony no. 2 and Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune. Thursday through Saturday, January 7 through 9, 8 PM, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; 312-294-3000 or 800-223-7114. A chamber recital Sunday, January 10, at 3 PM (also in Orchestra Hall) will feature Ma and violinist Maxim Vengerov, joined by Barenboim on piano. TED SHEN

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by J. Henry Fair.