CSO's Citizen Musician seeks right note

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Yo-Yo Ma

Yo-Yo Ma performs with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Thursday night. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune / March 1, 2013)

Ma will be leading another such (closed) rehearsal with the Civic on Monday night at Orchestra Hall.

“Working with Civic is very, very exciting because we're dealing with an age group that has energy, time and interest, and they're at the beginning of life, which is great because you can absorb and do so many things,” Ma said.

Ma also was involved in the development of the Chicago Cultural Plan and Arts Education Plan, both unveiled last fall at a school ceremony that featured the virtuoso cellist, Lyric Opera creative consultant/soprano Renee Fleming and Aspen Institute arts director/dancer Damian Woetzel. Ma has pushed for an increased arts presence in the Chicago Public Schools and considers these efforts part of Citizen Musician.

Woetzel has been using the term Citizen Artists in relation to his work at the Aspen Institute, and the DePaul School of Music, among the 105 participating musicians and organizations profiled on the Citizen Musician website, also has used the Citizen Musician label, but you don't find the Lyric or many other organizations at that initial Symphony Center meeting using it.

“The Citizen Musician brand really does belong to the CSO,” said Cayenne Harris, who was working for the CSO's Institute for Learning when Citizen Musician was launched but now is director of Lyric Unlimited, the opera company's new community engagement initiative. She said the CSO may have considered its work with the cultural plan and CPS to be a Citizen Musician effort, but “from Lyric's side I know they saw it as a Renee Fleming initiative, which preceded Lyric Unlimited.”

She added: “We absolutely applaud Yo-Yo Ma and the CSO for the work around Citizen Musician, and we think there's some alignment with the work that Lyric is doing, but we're creating something very specific to Lyric Opera of Chicago that is organic to this institution.”

Likewise, Chicago Children's Choir President/artistic director Josephine Lee said her organization hasn't been involved in any labeled Citizen Musician activities since that flash mob launch with Ma. She noted that the choir's mission as “ambassadors of music, of peace” predates the CSO initiative.

“It's hard for people to jump on an idea, a concept, if they feel they've already given birth to it,” said Lee, who recently returned with her choir from India, where they performed on streets as well as in performance spaces.

Paul Bauer, director of the Northern Illinois University School of Music, said he thinks the CSO will have to do a better job of broadly communicating the concept in layperson's terms for other organizations to take ownership of Citizen Musician. That said, he noted that the idea behind it is catching on; he cited the theme of January's College Music Society Summit in Dallas: “Developing the Artist Citizen.”

“This sort of thing was not a common topic even just a few years ago amongst professional musicians or musicians in higher education, and it has grown,” Bauer said.

Ma noted that trying to get any organization to focus on such extracurricular work is challenging in the current climate.

“Everybody is under the gun to program for the next season and to fund-raise,” Ma said. “We are 97 percent occupied with doing what we absolutely have to do to survive. There's very little thinking time available to do the necessary work to create that kind of lateral collaboration, because we're all scrapping for resources. I think that's the next problem that we need to solve.”

He added that it makes sense that most of the initial Citizen Musician activity would take place within the CSO as its officials and musicians try to figure out the best practices.

“The most important thing is we wanted to do something that's actually of service, and so in some ways you always have to start someplace, and it's good to start at home,” Ma said. “If home is not in good shape, how can you possibly expect to be of use?”

Said Rutter: “I think it's unfortunate that people think of it as our brand, because we don't look at it as exclusively ours. We want everybody to be participating. But whether you call it one thing or another, it's the act of sharing that's the important part.”

In that sense the effort is paying some unexpected dividends. Taylor, director of Ravinia's Reach Teach Play education programs, said although her division has not used the Citizen Musician label, that initial Symphony Center meeting introduced her to members of the South Shore Opera Company of Chicago, and now the two organizations are teaming up to present musical programs in dozens of Chicago Public Schools.

“That's what I think is so great about these kinds of gatherings and these kinds of initiatives,” Taylor said. “You never know what kind of long-term or short-term partnerships are going to come out of them.”

Twitter @markcaro

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