Since its founding in 1919, when Orchestra Hall itself was just 15 years old, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra but 30, the Civic Orchestra of Chicago has been the CSO’s elite training ensemble for gifted young professional musicians.
You’ll see these emerging artists in the Orchestra Hall audience often whenever a great virtuoso is in town, when Zell Music Director Riccardo Muti conducts the CSO, and especially when a concert features a demanding challenge for their own particular instrument.
On their own fast tracks, Civic Orchestra members are coached by musicians of the CSO. They also perform concerts of their own at Orchestra Hall, and in communities across the city, and these free performances feature a mix of classical standards and intriguing new works, led by Civic Principal Conductor Ken-David Masur and special guest conductors.
Muti himself will conduct a free open rehearsal of the Civic Orchestra on May 22. The work on that day: Mussorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition. It is always remarkable to witness the Maestro's rapport with young artists at these events, and to share the palpable excitement as a magical moment begins to transpire.
Here’s a look at Civic Orchestra events programmed for 2022-23. All concerts are at 8 p.m. on Mondays at Orchestra Hall, unless otherwise noted.
Oct. 17, Portraits in Harmony, conducted by Ken-David Masur: Orchestra Hall promises to erupt with Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, Richard Strauss’ brilliant musical depiction of an irrepressible mischief-maker. It’s filled with flamboyant escapades for clarinets, horns, really the whole orchestra, in a shimmer of utmost virtuosity before luck runs out for prankish Till. His musical pranks mock priestly manners in one moment, carouses like Don Juan in the next, taunts, eludes the chase, and swims in cartoons of self-pity. It’s music that will delight a child and impress the cleverest adult.
Also on the program is a 10-minute piece called Tower by the Jamaica-born British composer, guitarist and singer Eleanor Alberga. As for the Brahms Symphony No. 3, which closes the program, there are parts of this famous work that pop up at auditions of every great orchestras; a conductor is going to want to hear what kind of magic a musician can make with, for example, that unforgettably plaintive, lilting, third-movement melody that becomes magic in the best circumstance.
Dec. 19, Spiritual Awakenings, conducted by Rossen Milanov: Atlanta-based composer Carlos Simon, whose work ranges from film scores to jazz to gospel to neo-Romanticism, is spotlighted in Tales: A Folklore Symphony. Inspired by a simple question recently asked by the creative duo Black Kirby (“Where are all the Black people in comics?”), the artistic twosome immediately went about creating some wonderful characters. Simon then found himself thinking about “a short, fast-moving musical idea that constantly weaves in and throughout the orchestra.”
Recently named composer-in-residence at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., Simon is very much on the rise, with commissions from half a dozen major orchestras. Tales: A Folklore Symphony (2021), commissioned by the Sphinx Organization, will be paired with Rachmaninov’s First Symphony, from 1895.
Feb. 13, Parisian Perspectives, conducted by Ken-David Masur: A special focus will be directed at one of the most remarkable composers in history, yet who remains unknown to many classical-music patrons. Her life was shorter than that of Mozart, who died at 35, or Schubert, who died at 31, but Lili Boulanger is most definitely a brief candle of rare talent. She wrote music in an era when the greatest female musicians, such as her older sister, Nadia Boulanger, were generally more successful as pedagogues.
The work that Civic will perform is Lili Boulanger’s D'un Soir Triste (Sad Evening), the last composition she was able to write with her own hand before having to resort to dictation, ahead of her death at age 24 in 1918. D'un Soir Triste runs less than 10 minutes, but she pours out her soul in a sweep of evanescent color and exquisite sadness that may cause some to think of both Debussy and the late Romantics, especially given the other works on this program: Maurice Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin, with its with affectionate portraits of friends lost in World War 1, and César Franck’s Symphony in D Minor. (Note: The program also will be performed Sunday, Feb. 12 at 2 p.m. at the South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 S. South Shore Dr.).
May 15, Dreams and Reveries, conducted by Ken-David Masur: The centerpiece is Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, an early Romantic era work from 1830 that is crammed with unconventional writing and virtuoso moments for every instrument from piccolo and high E-flat clarinet to bassoon, tuba and harp. It’s on the must-master list for any professional musician in training. There is exuberant ballroom music at the start, a lonely song that seems to sound from the distant countryside, even a psychedelic passage painted with a spurned lover’s jealousy and grief.
Also on this program are two works by exceptional female composers in their 40s: Masquerade, a punchy party piece from 2013, written for the annual Last Night of the BBC Proms by British composer Anna Clyne, one of Muti’s first CSO composers-in-residence (2010-2015), and Dreaming, a tremulous creation from 2013 by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, described as “pure magic” in the British blogs. (Note: The program, minus the Thorvaldsdottir work, also will be performed Sunday, May 14, at 2 p.m. at Kenwood Academy High School, 5015 S. Blackstone.)
June 5, Membership and Friendship, conducted by Thomas Wilkins: The lead-off work is the nostalgic Ballade in A Minor by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, born in 1875 to a West African father and a British mother. He was accepted to the Royal College of Music in 1890 as a violinist and initially struggled for recognition as a composer. At the age of 22, just a year out of school, he was promoted by Sir Edward Elgar when a choral festival requested a short new orchestra piece from Elgar.
The elder composer demurred and strongly recommended Coleridge-Taylor instead, arguing that “he still wants recognition, and he is far and away the cleverest fellow going amongst the young men.” It was the break Coleridge-Taylor needed.
The Civic Orchestra will pair this highly accessible music with Elgar’s own Enigma Variations and a third piece, by the American composer Roy Harris. His Third Symphony was premiered by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony in 1939, and has since come to be considered an American classic. It remains Harris' best-known symphonic composition.
Special Events at Symphony Center
Along with its five concerts, the Civic also will present the following this season:
March 13, Brass and Percussion Concert: CSO trombonist Michael Mulcahy leads Civic members in an 8 p.m. program featuring brass and percussion works.
May 22, Civic Open Rehearsal with Riccardo Muti: The Zell Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra leads the Civic in an open rehearsal of Mussorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition.
June 12, Negaunee Music Institute Showcase: This year’s event features musicians from the Civic Orchestra, among many other NMI programs, and includes world-premiere performances of Civic-commissioned works by composers Tyshawn Sorey and Zachary Good. Performers include Civic Fellowship alumni celebrating the 10th anniversary of this program for early-career professional musicians.
Civic in the Community
The Civic Orchestra of Chicago’s 2022-23 Season also includes performances outside Symphony Center.
Dec. 5, Bach Marathon: The Civic presents its annual Bach Marathon, consisting of performances of J.S. Bach's Brandenburg Concertos at community venues and in a 7 p.m. culminating concert at Fourth Presbyterian Church, 126 E. Chestnut, Chicago. Launched in 2014 as one of several “artistic challenges” issued to the Civic musicians by Yo-Yo Ma, then CSO’s Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant, the event has become an annual tradition.
Feb. 12, Civic Community Concert — Parisian Perspectives: Making its 16th annual appearance at the historic South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 S. South Shore Dr., the Civic will present a 2 p.m. free program of French repertoire, led by Principal Conductor Ken-David Masur.
March 6, Civic Community Concert — Montgomery and Shostakovich: Led by Lidiya Yankovskaya, the Civic performs a free concert at 7 p.m. at Senn High School, 5900 N. Glenwood. The program consists of CSO Mead Composer-in-Residence Jessie Montgomery’s Hymn for Everyone and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 11.
May 14, Civic Community Concert — Dreams and Reveries: The Civic Orchestra, conducted by Ken-David Masur, performs a 2 p.m. matinee at Kenwood Academy, 5015 S. Blackstone. On the program are Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique and works by Anna Clyne and Lili Boulanger.
Crain-Maling Foundation CSO Young Artists Competition
Founded in 1919, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Youth Auditions have featured young soloists from across Illinois. Now known as the Crain-Maling Foundation CSO Young Artists Competition, this concerto event identifies one outstanding young performer to be featured in a CSO School and Family Concert the next season. This year’s competition is open to strings. Finalists will play one movement of a concerto onstage in Orchestra Hall, accompanied by the Civic Orchestra and conducted by Andrew Grams, in the final, public round on Jan. 21 at 2 p.m. This event is free and open to the public; tickets can be reserved two weeks before the event.
In addition, the Civic will offer two open rehearsals, conducted by Jay Friedman, CSO principal trombone, in Orchestra Hall next season. The first, on Nov. 14 at 7 p.m., features Bruckner's Symphony No. 4. The second, on March 19 at 7 p.m., consists of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 (Eroica).
Civic performances at Symphony Center and in neighborhood venues are free, but tickets are required. Seating is general admission, and there is a non-refundable, $5 per ticket service fee for all performances at Symphony Center. Tickets will become available two weeks before each concert. Ticket reservations for Civic Orchestra of Chicago performances can be made online at cso.org, by phone at 312-294-3000 or in person at the CSO box office, 220 S. Michigan.