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)

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.

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