Chicago Symphony Orchestra – A Distant Mirror

Yo-Yo Ma’s A Distant Mirror began with a bang, followed by a jingle. The beat of a riqq, an Arabic tambourine, rang out from the back of the main floor. Percussionist Cynthia Yeh made her way through the aisle to the front of the hall, pounding a joyful, syncopated rhythm. When she arrived at the foot of the stage, Ma’s voice boomed through the hall: “If music be the food of love,” he started, before a chorus of voices shouted “Play on!” Answering their own directive, the rest of the ensemble burst into the hall. Alongside another percussionist, eight cello-players marched through the audience to the stage with instruments fixed to their chests on “Block Straps,” an ingenious device (invented by Mike Block, one of Distant Mirror’s players and organizers) that allows cellists to move on their feet while playing. Finally, the ensemble took the stage to finish their processional piece, Hanacpachap Cussicuinin, a traditional Incan Catholic chant written in the Quechua language, arranged by Block for cello and percussion. This dramatic entrance set the tone for the rest of the performance, which mingled to spectacular effect the conventions of Western chamber music with performance traditions from around the globe.

A Distant Mirror would be best described as a celebration: of different cultural traditions, musical and otherwise; of percussive music, and of the cello as an instrument; of our pasts and of the present. The quatercentenary of Shakespeare’s and Cervantes’s deaths ostensibly inspired the program, but the concert itself went on to take a much broader view, holding up a mirror to a world that at times seemed more immediate than “distant.”

Much of the music on the program was evidently chosen for its historical status, the first four pieces being more or less contemporary with Shakespeare and Cervantes. Hanacpachap Cussicuinin dates to the first decades of the seventeenth century and remains the earliest surviving example of notated polyphonic music in the New World. The three following pieces were gathered into A Distant Mirror Suite, each one representing a different early modern cultural tradition. Juan Arañés’s joyful dance tune, Chacona: La Vida Bona (ca. 1624), saw both percussionists accompanying a cello quartet, who clapped and stamped and sang “To life, to life, come to chaconne” in Spanish, all while playing their instruments. Claude Gervaise’s dances (ca. 1550s), also here arranged for cello quartet with percussion accompaniment, were decidedly Northern Renaissance in style, and highlighted a tradition in the midst of a major cultural shift: Gervaise was one of the first composers to notate secular dance tunes. Nikriz Peşrev offered an exciting example of early modern Turkish music, and allowed members of the cello octet to display their individual chops as they passed around short call-and-response solos. Its composer, Ali Ufki Bey (1610?-1675), was an Ottoman musician and Muslim convert of Polish birth who notated two anthologies of traditional Turkish music and translated the melodies of a Calvinist Psalter for the Middle Eastern modal system.

Despite the historical distance of these compositions, they seemed strikingly modern in arrangement, instrumentation, and performance style. Blaise Dejardin arranged Gervaise’s dances; Hanacpachap Cussicuinin, Chacona, and Nikriz Peşrev were all arranged by Block. Both arrangers updated the pieces such that it became delightfully difficult to distinguish old from new. Hanacpachap Cussicuinin, for instance, was composed well before celli were invented, but in its arrangement here sounded as if it were written specifically for marching cello octet.

Likewise, those pieces on the program written by living composers (one present on stage) bridged the gulf between past and present in fascinating ways. A recent composition, Colin Jacobsen’s A Mirror for a Prince drew on early seventeenth-century Persian music, including Zoroastrian musical traditions. Mario Diaz de Leon’s Anima evinced an eclectic mix of inspirations, including Buddhist chants and the hymns of medieval abbess Hildegard van Bingen; its use of quarter tones to express sorrow furthermore recalled Sephardic Jewish musical conventions as well as the heavy metal Diaz de Leon records as a solo artist. Shane Shanahan’s percussion duet Saidi Swing offered an object lesson in the evolution of Middle Eastern rhythm—one reinforced with a brief lecture from the stage on Arabic drumming techniques. And Giovanni Sollima’s Guglielmo Scrollalanza, inspired by an Italian legend that Shakespeare was a Sicilian emigrant, incorporated musical phrases reminiscent of Renaissance dance tunes while employing inventive performance techniques, such as playing cymbals with cello bows.

The program concluded with another Renaissance/modern-day hybrid, Block’s arrangement of Romance del Conde Claros by Francisco Salinas (1513-1590). Two encore selections, however, ultimately wrapped up the concert: Dejardin’s arrangement of Vaughn Williams’s Fantastia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and a reprise of Block’s arrangement of Arañés’ Chacona. These selections made a particularly appropriate end for this performance of historical and cultural interchange. As a very recent arrangement of an Edwardian-era variation on a sixteenth-century theme, Fantasia offered a lovely example of transhistorical collaboration. The reprise of Chacona circled back to the concert’s beginning, reiterating an exuberant melody encouraging listeners to celebrate “la vida bona” through music and dance.

As Ma explained from the stage, A Distant Mirror aimed to enliven the past not just to examine the global networks within which Shakespeare and Cervantes operated, but because looking backward can provide productive insight into our world today. The concert offered a means for far-flung cultures separated by space as well as time to speak to each other so that we might appreciate their contradictions and delight in their similarities. By teaching us to celebrate unity in difference, Ma insisted, such reflection can help us “do better and be better” as a people. This effort seemed particularly appropriate on the afternoon of the concert, in the dark aftermath of what had occurred overnight in Orlando. It was a hard day to feel happy or hopeful at all. But the joy and compassion that A Distant Mirror’s multicultural, interhistorical performance evoked made it feel for a moment as if we just might be able to make things right someday.

Rebecca L. Fall is a visiting assistant professor in the Department of English at Northwestern University, where she teaches courses on Renais­sance literature and media history. She is currently writing a book on nonsense writing, clownish language and silly jokes in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature. Her re­search has been supported by several nationally competitive fellow­ships, including the Mellon/ACLS and Mellon-CES Dissertation Comple­tion Fellow­ships. Rebecca holds a PhD and an MA in English from Northwestern University, and a BA in English from the University of Virginia.