For the 2020/21 Civic Fellows, a mid-December recording session marked a special occasion: it was the first time these nine musicians gathered in the same room and performed together. The Civic Orchestra of Chicago’s season, which began in October 2020, has primarily consisted of virtual projects and workshops, but the recent launch of a free chamber music series on CSOtv has allowed small ensembles to film performances at Symphony Center. The second episode, titled Shared Reality and premiering on Feb. 18, was curated by the Civic Fellows and features works by living composers.
The Civic Fellowship program immerses a select group of musicians in professional development opportunities that enhance their membership in the Civic Orchestra. Fellows design and implement community engagement projects, perform in free concerts across the city, mentor young musicians and more. One of the skills cultivated through the program is the art of curating chamber music concerts, a project that typically culminates in a live performance but has been adapted for CSOtv this season.
To prepare for their curation project, the Civic Fellows participated in online workshops with several members of the International Contemporary Ensemble, a Brooklyn-based ensemble that commissions and performs works by early-career composers and advocates for creators who are underrepresented in the field of new music. Ross Karre, Jacob Greenberg and Rebekah Heller coached the Fellows on how to develop a values-based approach to curation.
“It’s super fulfilling to coach Civic musicians because there’s a real sense, not only of virtuosity in what they do, but also of responsibility in terms of how they want to live their lives as socially engaged artists in this world,” said Heller, who is a Civic Orchestra alumna. “I find a lot of curiosity and engagement on that level, which is exciting to witness and to help foster in young artists.”
With the guidance of the International Contemporary Ensemble, the Fellows collaborated on a mission statement and defined their goals for the project, which included programming music by composers from diverse backgrounds. Then, they individually did research and submitted suggestions of pieces by living composers that fit the mission. From the resulting list, Abby Black (horn), Joe Bricker (percussion) and Hannah Christiansen (violin) drafted several program options, which were submitted to the full group for a vote.
The Fellows’ final selection was a program that invites reflection on the global pandemic. “We’ve all experienced a real range of emotions and realities since last March,” said Hannah Christiansen. “We tried to pick pieces that reflected [that range]. Some of the pieces are a little bit lighter, a little bit more exciting, and some of them are pretty heavy.”
One of the Fellows’ other criteria was to feature a work with open instrumentation, which would allow the full group to perform together with their unusual combination of instruments (two violins, viola, two cellos, flute, oboe/English horn, horn and percussion). Nicole Mitchell’s improvisational Symbology #3 was their final choice. The Fellows rehearsed the piece over Zoom, with the composer joining them for one session, and finally met in person to record in Buntrock Hall at Symphony Center.
“It was a really emotional, really fun experience not only to play the piece for the first time, but to be in that room with that group of people for the first time,” said Christiansen.
Abby Black emphasized her gratitude for the chance to put together a full new music concert. “Especially during this pandemic, there aren’t a lot of opportunities out there to break away from the standards and the pieces that everyone knows,” she said. “This was really, really wonderful.”