“Maestro Muti is very passionate about making the music of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO) available to people who wouldn’t ordinarily be able to experience it,” Coordinator of Civic Engagement Programs, James Hall, explains. “We feel strongly that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra should be an orchestra for everyone, regardless of their current situation in life. We work annually with the Illinois Youth Centers of the Department of Juvenile Justice to demonstrate our belief that music serves a central and vital role in our society.” This mission to make music available to everyone has brought the CSO to Illinois Youth Centers (IYC) in Warrenville and Chicago annually since 2010. This year, IYC-Chicago hosted Maestro Muti and the CSO on Sunday, September 25 for a night of opera and classical music.
Six participants in Storycatchers’ Firewriters program were among an audience that included over 70 IYC-Chicago residents, IYC-Chicago staff, and 60 guests invited by the CSO, Storycatchers, and IYC-Chicago. Five youth from IYC-Warrenville and Warrenville’s Superintendent, Judy Davis, also had the opportunity to attend and experience this special evening.
To begin the evening concert, Michael Byrd, IYC-Chicago’s Assistant Superintendent of Programs, welcomed the audience and reminded everyone how important it is for the youth to be exposed to new experiences. Many of the young men in the audience would be hearing and seeing this type of performance for the first time. Mr. Byrd encouraged the residents to appreciate this opportunity, and reinforced the idea that exposure to new and different art forms broadens a person’s perspective. “You may love it. You may hate it. But know you’ll be better off for having this experience.”
After the warm welcome, Maestro Muti introduced and accompanied the night’s opera singers on piano. Clearly, the subject matter of the work to be performed was carefully selected to pique the interest of the young audience. The mezzo-soprano, Joyce DiDonato, sang a stunningly beautiful 18th-century aria by Handel, in which a captive in a prison sings of gaining her metaphorical freedom through her tears. DiDonato then sang a 21st-century aria specifically written for her, in which another captive prepares for her fate: to leap to her death into a volcano.
The bass-baritone, Eric Owens, sang a 19th-century piece by Verdi that caught the attention of the incarcerated boys in the audience: a song of a duke returning home to find his wife with two suitors. His second song was a spiritual, and the only piece that was performed in English.
The youth at IYC-Chicago were especially captivated by the arias. “That kind of thing was new to me. I’ve never heard a story in a song before. When I get out, I’d like to go downtown to see Maestro Muti and say, ‘Thank you!’” one resident shared.
After the vocal performances, musicians from the CSO took the stage to demonstrate a variety of instruments. This section of the presentation featured solos and duets by Jennifer Gunn on piccolo (the orchestra’s smallest instrument), Gene Pokorny on tuba (the largest instrument), Cynthia Yeh on a variety of percussion instruments, and Patrick Godon on piano. The musicians, like Maestro Muti, engaged the youth by demonstrating their instruments in ways that quickly engaged the youth. Ms. Yeh encouraged the youth to groove along to the drumming. Mr. Pokorny first demonstrated his full-sized tuba by playing the “mothership” theme song from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and then used his smaller tuba to scare everyone out of the water with the Jaws theme.
After much thunderous applause and appreciative bows, the performers, guests, and selected youth attended a reception in the IYC-Chicago dining room where they were able to continue the conversation begun by an inspiring night of music. “My favorite thing about Maestro Muti is the man himself. He is so down to earth and makes the foreign feel familiar. He works to connect with our youth. He sets limits, and I like that. He comes to the facility as a regular person, even though he is extraordinarily well known,” Mr. Byrd shared.
“Our relationship with the IYCs predates my time with the Institute, but I’ve found that the staff and administration at both IYC-Chicago and IYC-Warrenville are very supportive of programs that provide their youth with outlets for creativity. Our task is always easier when we work with partners who value and understand what we do,” Mr. Hall explains.
Since the first time that Storycatchers coordinated a visit for Maestro Muti at IYC-Chicago, the CSO has developed an ongoing relationship with that facility. March will mark the beginning of the 3rd week-long residency in which members of the Negaunee Music Institute come to IYC-Chicago to teach the residents to play chords on CSO instruments both familiar and unfamiliar. Lyrics created by the young men become songs they play alongside symphony members. They then record the instrumentation on a CD. On the final day of each residency, the young men perform this music with the instrumentalists from the CSO. Participants also receive opportunities to attend rehearsals at the Symphony Center, including the Welcome Yule and Merry, Merry Chicago. Mr. Byrd explains, “Because of this collaboration, the young men are going places they’ve never gone and having experiences they’ve never had before.”
This experience will soon extend to Storycatchers’ post-release Changing Voices Ensemble. Mr. Hall explains, “Our partnership with Storycatchers’ Fab Females program at IYC-Warrenville goes back a long time. We’re great admirers of Storycatchers’ work in youth prisons, so when we learned about the work that Storycatchers is doing with post-release teens through Changing Voices, we were excited to get involved. We feel that the addition of instrumental music adds a tremendously important element to the production and is a broadening experience for our musicians in the Civic Orchestra. We are currently looking at performance dates with Changing Voices in 2017.”