Maestro Riccardo Muti typically doesn’t pass through a metal detector or get a pat-down before conducting a concert. But the intimate recital he presented with Joyce DiDonato, Eric Owens, and musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on Sunday, September 25, 2016 was different.
The concert took place at the Illinois Youth Center-Chicago (IYC-Chicago), one of five facilities that are part of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice. Muti has made eight visits to Chicago-area correctional facilities in an effort to bring music into the community. This was his second time at IYC-Chicago.
The performance was hosted in a space that also doubles as a basketball court, with paintings of famous basketball players on the walls, including Michael Jordan stylized as the “Jumpman” logo for his Air Jordan line of footwear. Dozens of young men filed into rows of blue plastic chairs, all wearing the same blue pants, blue shirts, and white sneakers fastened with Velcro straps.
A staff member encouraged each of the young men to “push your grown man button,” and to be open to the experience they were about to have, understanding that the music they would hear would likely be different than the music they were used to, and may even be music that they did not like. All the same, he assured them, the concert would provide them with an experience that would change them.
Before Muti began, two young women from the Illinois Youth Center – Warrenville performed an original song, “Edge of Oblivion,” as a duet. It was written with Storycatchers Theatre, which as part of its mission to empower youth through writing, works with students in the Chicago area centers to create original works that explore their own journeys through song.
Afterwards, Muti addressed the young men and acknowledged, “already the word ‘classical’ makes you worried.” He told them that when he was young, he was encouraged to study music by his parents, despite his initial disinterest. In fact, at one point, his parents considered cancelling his music lessons to save money on the expense. However, soon his skills improved, and the rest, as they say, is history.
He invited DiDonato and Owens to perform. First, the mezzo sang “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Handel’s Rinaldo, explaining that the character in the opera sings to express her sadness while she is imprisoned. The second aria she performed was “Si, son io,” from Jake Heggie’s recently composed Great Scott. Owens performed “Infelice! E tuo credevi” from Ernani and Harry Thacker Burleigh’s Deep River. Afterwards, members of the orchestra performed a selection of solo and chamber works.
When the performance concluded, several of the young men offered their reactions. One young man who played drums when he was younger particularly enjoyed Cynthia Yeh’s percussion solo, Saidi Swing by Shane Shanahan. Another young man, who played tuba in elementary school but said he was never very good, enjoyed hearing tuba player Gene Pokorny play Arthur Pryor’s Blue Bells of Scotland. He had the opportunity to visit Symphony Center to hear the CSO in its own house, where he said it was “definitely different” but that it was “impressive.” A third young man, who said he doesn’t play an instrument other than during the video game Rock Band, was particularly taken with the high sound of the piccolo, played by Jennifer Gunn. Her instrument was featured in arrangements from J.S. Bach’s Double Violin Concerto and a Vivaldi piccolo concerto.
DiDonato said she observed that the mood in the room seemed to change throughout the afternoon from “restless and uncertain to tranquil and full of curiosity.” Because “music belongs to everybody,” she said, “it can be an amazing, poignant way to make connections.”
Owens said, “I always carry experiences like this with me. There’s nothing like music to spread love. Music can fill us with hope and vision. I am always happy to be a part of maestro Muti’s mission to bring music to where the people are.”
To learn more about the CSO and its work in the community, visit the organization’s website.