10:15 AM EST, March 4, 2013
A little more than two years ago, the curtain lifted on the Chicago Symphony Orchestra-led Citizen Musician initiative, and CSO Association President Deborah Rutter told an overflow crowd at the Chicago Cultural Center: “All of you are citizen musicians. We consider you our foot soldiers in the movement.”
That January day had begun with various musical performances around the city and climaxed in a flash mob in Metra's underground Millennium Station, as cellist and CSO creative consultant Yo-Yo Ma and 85 members of the Chicago Children's Choir surprised passers-by by breaking out in song. By the time Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn was pledging his support to Ma backstage at the Cultural Center, it was clear that this movement had some marching power.
Cut to present day, and Citizen Musician has made significant strides but not all in the same direction. The idea behind the movement is simple yet elusive; its website states: “The Citizen Musician initiative exists to sustain and expand the role of music in civic and cultural life.”
Seems like a basic enough idea, but figuring out how to execute it is no easy feat. Citizen Musician has become part of the CSO's vocabulary, eliciting increased donations for its programs and participation among its musicians. But for it to qualify as a movement would require it to spread well beyond the folks based in Symphony Center.
That has yet to happen, and Ma isn't about to predict how it will all play out.
“I'm such an expert on this because this is the fifth time I've done Citizen Musician,” Ma said with a laugh during a recent interview in Symphony Center. “Oh, sorry.”
The initiative grew out of then-new music director Riccardo Muti's desire to take the orchestra's work to communities not traditionally served by classical music, such as prisons and various ethnic neighborhoods, and to emphasize music's central role in people's everyday lives.
When Ma signed on as creative consultant, he took that ball and ran with it, engaging in numerous discussions with the brass of the CSO and its Institute for Learning, Access and Training to come up with a program that would put a name and common purpose to the kind of community-oriented activities in which many artists and organizations were already participating.
The CSO unveiled Citizen Musician in December 2010 at Symphony Center to about 30 representatives of arts organizations, from the South Side to DeKalb. The idea was that Citizen Musician would take on a collective identity, shared by everyone there and beyond, and the buy-in seemed complete. Christine Taylor, who oversees Ravinia's education and community programs, ended the meeting by spontaneously leading the group in song: All things shall perish from under the sky/Music alone shall live, music alone shall live, music alone shall live/Never to die.
Since then, the CSO piece of Citizen Musician has been easiest to track. The orchestra engaged in Citizen Musician activities while on tour in Russia, New York and Mexico last year and China and Korea this year, with musicians teaching master classes and visiting rehab centers, hospitals, an orphanage and a cancer treatment center.
Closer to home, Muti, Ma, CSO musicians and chorus members have visited correctional centers (the Illinois Youth Center in Warrenville, the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center on the West Side) as well as schools, hospitals, churches and other public places in Chicago neighborhoods (Pilsen, Woodlawn, Edgewater) and beyond. The school visits tend to focus on small ensembles and intimate classroom interactions, in contrast to the days when the entire orchestra would perform at an assembly.
“The way we did the school visits decades ago worked decades ago,” Rutter said. “(That) wouldn't work for us today. Because the schools work differently. The school music programs are different.”
At the same time, though, CSO musicians recall a time when more funding existed for school and community visits than is currently available. Institute Vice President Charles Grode said such efforts in the late 1990s and early 2000s took place on “a much larger scale” and also involved more musicians, but the funding levels were not sustainable, and donors wanted to see more of an ongoing partnership between the CSO and the schools and community organizations.
“If you look at the kind of interaction that we are trying to develop with the players, we're hoping for something that is deeper and more specific to the audience and the location,” Grode said, noting that the musicians and hosting sites have responded enthusiastically. “The funding community is reflecting the increased value that they see.”
CSO spokeswoman Rachelle Roe said funding for Citizen Musician programs increased tenfold from its modest beginnings between the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons and is projected to more than double again for the current season, though she declined to provide actual dollar amounts. Roe said the CSO Association last year invested $4.3 million directly into the institute's programs, including Citizen Musician activities.
Inside the CSO, interest in Citizen Musician has grown as well, Grode said. “The response level in the first year was lower than what we would have liked, but as we have had conversations with players and as they've seen the idea develop, I would say this year we have as much response as we are able to manage at this point in a meaningful way,” he said.
Grode and Rutter said an increasing number of musicians have stepped up to suggest and participate in Citizen Musician activities. CSO assistant concertmaster Yuan-Qing Yu — who in early 2011 formed a group called Civitas Ensemble that performs regularly at Children's Memorial Hospital and who received funding for a school visit during a recent trip to India — said she thinks the initiative “is not only positive, but also necessary.”
“The world is getting smaller with the help of technology. Why should communities be more separated?” she said.
The CSO also considers the recently completed Youth in Music Festival and the upcoming Rivers Festival, a three-week program in May-June exploring the significance of rivers in art and music as well as the environment, to fall under the Citizen Musician umbrella.
In his most ambitious Citizen Musician project yet, Ma has been meeting and rehearsing regularly with the Civic Orchestra, the CSO's training body comprised of musicians in their early 20s, since last fall to prepare them for a May concert in which they'll perform Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 (“Pastorale”) without sheet music or a conductor. The purpose is to emphasize flexibility, imagination and collaboration, skills that may not be taught in conservatories but may prove important for young musicians facing a job market in transition.
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.”
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