For more than a century, young orchestral musicians have received expert training through the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, which offers performance opportunities with top-tier conductors and mentorship from Chicago Symphony Orchestra members. The Civic Fellowship program, now approaching its 10th anniversary, provides additional professional development experiences for a select group of Civic Orchestra musicians each season.
Throughout the 2021/22 Season, 13 Civic Fellows participated in educational workshops, partnerships with Chicago Public Schools, Notes for Peace songwriting sessions and independent projects. In a recent interview, violinist and first-year Fellow Nelson Mendoza reflected on the season’s activities and shared how the program prepares young musicians for the future. “You start to have another perspective of the field, of the music business, and you see yourself as an integral artist, capable of creating your own opportunities and path,” he said.
Mendoza, who grew up in Venezuela, began studying the violin through several institutions associated with El Sistema, which he describes as a “social action music program” that emphasizes “the values of integration and inclusion.” Founded in 1975 by José Antonio Abreu, El Sistema offers music lessons and ensemble participation for youth, free of cost.
A highlight of Mendoza’s early training was playing with the Youth Orchestra of Caracas from 2011 to 2016, an experience that included tour performances at the Bergen International Festival, Dvořák-Prague International Music Festival, Salzburg Festival, ExpoMilan 2015-Festival delle Orchestre Internazionali and Beethovenfest, and in venues such as the Cité de la musique, Musikverein Wien, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Space and China’s National Centre for the Performing Arts, among others. With this ensemble, he played under the baton of prominent conductors including Gustavo Dudamel, Rafael Payare, Diego Matheuz, Dietrich Paredes, Christian Vásquez and Leon Botstein.
Although he earned an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Simón Bolívar University, Mendoza continued to study violin and later decided to pursue a degree in music. He and his wife, also a violinist, chose to leave Venezuela, where the political and socioeconomic crisis was escalating. Their graduate-school search led them to DePaul University, where they earned masters’ degrees and post-masters’ certificates while studying with Janet Sung, associate professor of violin and strings coordinator. At DePaul, he also met Cliff Colnot, who served as principal conductor of the Civic Orchestra for more than 20 years and supported Mendoza in the audition preparation and the process of the Civic Fellowship application.
As he neared the end of his studies at DePaul, Mendoza applied to the Civic Orchestra — a virtual process, since in-person activities had not yet resumed at Symphony Center. “I wanted to apply to the Civic Orchestra because I consider it as one of the most important orchestras in the city, because it’s formed by outstanding musicians,” he said. Mendoza also was attracted by the ensemble’s diversity. “There are people from Pennsylvania, Georgia, Alabama, Texas, Maryland, Florida and foreign countries — China, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, Russia, Iceland, Spain, Brazil, Colombia, my dear Venezuela and more,” he said.
Beyond membership in the full orchestra, Mendoza has found his first year as a Civic Fellow to be especially fulfilling. “The Fellowship program was developed to nurture us in a variety of topics. Besides learning about project and event management, the Fellowship also makes us aware of different social issues and our role as musicians in improving these situations,” he said.
Fellows attended professional development workshops throughout the season, including sessions with the International Contemporary Ensemble on programming chamber-music concerts. He noted that early-career musicians may not be used to planning their own repertoire, since teachers and professors often guide students in these decisions.
The Civic Fellowship provides “the opportunity to take responsibility in these decisions with much more freedom,” according to Mendoza. Working as a team with the other Fellows, “you have to discuss your ideas and take into account the type of values that you want to convey — so the program is really eye-opening,” he said.
Additional workshops included sessions with Chicago Regional Organizing for Anti-Racism on understanding systemic racism and developing more inclusive practices. As an international student, Mendoza said that learning the specific ways in which these issues affect U.S. society has been helpful.
Civic Fellows also participated in CSO-Connect, an arts-integration partnership between the CSO’s Negaunee Music Institute and Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Fellows collaborated with CPS teachers to develop curricular units related to a specific theme and orchestral music featured in a culminating concert. Mendoza noted that this work is especially important due to ever-decreasing arts education budgets for schools. Programs like CSO-Connect “show the kids that there’s a future in the arts,” he said.
For Mendoza, the most meaningful experience of the season was Notes for Peace, a songwriting project that empowers Chicago-area parents to create original songs of tribute to children they have lost because of gun violence. A program of the Negaunee Music Institute, presented in partnership with the advocacy group Purpose Over Pain, Notes for Peace held three songwriting workshops and two public performances in the 2021/22 Season.
Civic Fellows collaborated with parents and artists from the UK-based Irene Taylor Trust to compose, record and perform the new songs. Although he had never composed music before, Mendoza found it revealing that he could achieve this task. “I was not aware of all the knowledge that I had in this area until I was working with the great flutist and music educator, Alyssa Primeau, and exceptional viola player, dog lover and avid cyclist, Bethany Pereboom, who are other Fellows,” he said.
“It is incredible how our musical skills helped the parents to express themselves, tell their child’s story and, to a certain degree, heal their pain,” said Mendoza. The songwriting process includes interviews in which parents share their child’s story and ideas for their song. “When you hear all their stories and all the pain that they have gone through … you wonder when all this madness is going to stop and when sincere policies toward gun control will be issued,” he added.
At the public concerts, parents introduce their child’s song, and some join the musicians to sing a portion of the lyrics. “You feel something completely different” at these live performances, said Mendoza. “[The parents] are happy because the piece goes along with what they ask and represents the celebratory aspect that they wanted to convey with the song, or the memory of their son or their family [member]. It’s so rewarding.”
This experience emphasized for Mendoza one of the key ideas of the Civic Fellowship program: the civic musician. “There’s the conception that as musicians we practice a piece, we rehearse it, play it in a concert and that’s it — that’s our job,” he said. As a civic musician, however, “We can do something else besides just playing. We can create real connections with audiences, and we discover that music is an impactful tool to change society and your surroundings.”
Looking ahead to the 2022/23 Season, Mendoza shared his excitement for celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Civic Fellowship program. Although details are yet to be announced, he teased that the special activities would be “spectacular and unforgettable.”
He also plans to continue his independent project next season. Fellows take part in grant-writing workshops and are provided with funds to develop and execute their own community engagement projects. Mendoza chose to form a string quartet and perform at St. Mary’s Home, a senior living facility. He enjoys performing for seniors because “they are sometimes forgotten,” he said. “Some of them do not have families or kids, so it’s really nice to know them, to be there for them and hear their stories. In the end, what people want is to be heard.”
Of his overall experience with the Civic Fellowship, Mendoza feels “absolutely happy and satisfied with the program.” He appreciates that Fellows are encouraged to think critically and provide feedback in a collaborative environment. “It makes you feel welcome and heard — that what you think and feel matters,” he said. “That’s what I love from the program.”