Together again, the Civic looks forward to its most diverse season ever

This season, Principal Conductor Ken-David Masur will lead the Civic Orchestra of Chicago in the Bach Marathon finale on Dec. 6 and conduct programs on Feb. 14 and May 2.

Todd Rosenberg Photography

When the Civic Orchestra of Chicago celebrated its 100th anniversary on March 1, 2020, with a benefit concert featuring superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma, little did its members know that they would not perform again together for more than 19 months because of the coronavirus shutdown.

Indeed, it was an emotional reunion Oct. 18 as the Civic Orchestra regrouped for the first time since 2020 for an informal reading with Principal Conductor Ken-David Masur. “Just to have people on stage together and welcome the biggest freshman class that we’ve had in the last four or five years,” Masur said, “it was a wonderful first time to get together and wish everybody well.”

The Civic, the pre-professional training ensemble of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, will return Nov. 8 to in-person performances and present a complete slate of full-orchestra and chamber concerts running through June 6. It will close its season with a concert featuring vocal soloists from the Ryan Opera Center, the training arm of Lyric Opera of Chicago.

More than perhaps any annual line-up before it, the Civic Orchestra’s 2021-22 season puts an emphasis on diversity, with an array of works by women and people of color — what Masur described as “normalizing the call to give voice to musicians and composers who perhaps had been neglected.”

Like most classical ensembles today, the Civic Orchestra has become more “intentional” about performing music that represents multiple perspectives, said Jonathan McCormick, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s director of education and the Negaunee Music Institute (the CSO’s educational wing). “That’s the result of a new value system that we have for our programming,” he said.

Nowhere is this enhanced spirit of inclusion more visible than on the opening program, which includes William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 1 (Afro-American) (1930), the first symphony by an African American composer to be performed by a major U.S. orchestra. Among the other three works is An American Port of Call by 80-year-old African American composer Adolphus Hailstork. “I think it is an exciting new approach to a program that is entirely American music,” McCormick said. The concert, titled "Fate Now Conquers," will be led by African American maestro Thomas Wilkins, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s youth and family concerts conductor and principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. Though he has previously led CSO family concerts, this will be his debut with the Civic Orchestra.

Other notable examples of the Civic’s more diversified programming can be found Jan. 16 and 18, when it presents Sarah Kirkland Snider’s Something for the Dark (2015), which McCormick called a “meditation on resiliency,” and Feb. 14, when it offers a program titled "In Times of War" with the Overture (1943) by the overlooked Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz. The ensemble’s May 2 concert will include Caught by the Wind (2016) by Jessie Montgomery, appointed in April as the Chicago Symphony’s Mead Composer-in-Residence.

While performing contemporary and overlooked works from the past and putting increased emphasis on diversity is critical, McCormick said, the Civic Orchestra also cannot overlook its mission as a training ensemble. To that end, its leaders make a point of including on Civic's programs established masterpieces that the players will encounter in their careers. Such repertoire staples on the 2021-22 season include Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 (Jan. 16 and 18), Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra (Feb. 14) and Richard Strauss’ An Alpine Symphony (May 2).

The Civic Orchestra was founded in 1919 by Frederick Stock, the CSO’s second music director, both as a training ensemble and also as a means, in his words, to “Americanize” this country’s orchestras and reduce their dependence on European musicians. “It has continuously operated [since then], but it has taken different forms,” McCormick said. In the 1970s and ’80s, it was more a community youth orchestra, but Daniel Barenboim, the CSO’s music director in 1991-2006, strived to raise the Civic's profile and return it to being a top-level professional ensemble.

Another turning point came when superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma served as the CSO’s Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant from 2010 to 2019 and devoted considerable attention to the Civic. He helped the group focus not just on musical excellence but also on putting an accent on the “civic” in Civic Orchestra and making sure it serves communities of all kinds across the city.

The group has 90 members with an average age of about 25. About 70 percent have already earned their master’s degrees and are out of school, and the rest are continuing their post-graduate studies. Most are from the United States, but there are some international players. The members are required to live in the Chicago area, working part-time for the Civic Orchestra and filling out their days with other work or studies. They are appointed to two-year terms, and each has the possibility to audition for a third final year — an option that was instituted in 2018-19. “Now, you can create more of a relationship,” Masur said.

The Civic Orchestra’s central mission is to serve as a bridge from the academic to the professional world. “Our mission is really to prepare emerging professional musicians for lives in music," McCormick said. "We do that in an orchestral context and outside of it as well, but more and more, we’re starting to focus on Civic members preparing for multifaceted careers, because we know this is the norm for them when they leave our program.”

There are other significant training programs in the United States, like the National Repertory Orchestra in Breckenridge, Colo., and those associated with the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox, Mass., and the Aspen (Colo.) Music Festival. They all run in the summer. The New World Symphony operates an extended annual program in Miami Beach, but the Civic Orchestra stands alone as the only fall-to-spring pre-professional ensemble associated with a major symphony orchestra. CSO members lead readings and sectional rehearsals and serve as mentors to players.

The Civic Orchestra’s century-old approach is validated by the extraordinary success of its alumni. Hundreds have gone on to play in orchestras across the United States and around the world, including 14 former members in the Chicago Symphony alone. Here is a sampling of recent alumni who have landed notable professional positions: Matthew Barker (2014-16), trumpet, Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; Genevieve Guimond (2013-2015), cello, Montreal Symphony Orchestra; Joe LeFevre (2017-18), principal tuba, Kansas City (Mo.) Symphony, and Lynn Williams (2004-06), principal harp, Minnesota Orchestra and Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra. “I’ve met so many people in my travels after I was announced,” Masur said, “who come up and say, ‘Oh, I’m an alum.”

In a typical season, the Civic presents seven to nine full-orchestra programs, six at Symphony Center and the rest at venues around the community, including an annual concert at the South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 S. South Shore Dr. In addition, the orchestra tries to perform in a high-school auditorium each season. This year’s such concert is set for Feb. 28, but the location has not yet been announced. To foster accessibility and inclusivity, all of the ensemble’s concerts are free with a small ticket-processing fee.

At Ma’s urging, the ensemble began its one-day Bach Marathon seven years ago. During this annual one-day event, Civic ensembles spread out across the city to perform one of J.S. Bach’s six Brandenburg Concertos and then regroup that evening to perform all of them in one location. This year’s closing concert Dec. 6 will take place at the Fourth Presbyterian Church, 126 E. Chestnut. “Audiences have loved it. The finale event has been packed every year,” McCormick said. “And we hope that is the case again this year.”

In 2013-14, the Civic Orchestra founded its Fellows program, a leadership training initiative in which 10-15 members are chosen for additional education and engagement work in collaboration with the Negaunee Music Institute. As part of their program curriculum each year, they curate and perform chamber concerts. This year’s 13 Fellows will present their small-group programs on Dec. 12 and Jan. 9, and they will collaborate on the planning and presentation of a May 11 line-up with the International Contemporary Ensemble.

The Civic Orchestra launched a principal conductor search in the 2016-17 season, and that was the first time that Masur led the orchestra. According to McCormick, he came across as a “dynamic person and great musician,” but that was only the beginning. “What stood out to us with Ken is that he is a really good teacher," he said. "He treats the members of Civic as professionals but also really helps them to learn, and it’s a difficult balance to strike with this age group. They’re starting their careers but there is also a lot that they have left to learn.” Bearing out that opinion is what McCormick called “extraordinarily positive feedback” from the Civic musicians.

Masur’s appointment as principal conductor of the Civic Orchestra was announced in June 2019, after he had made three appearances with the ensemble, including a concert just weeks before. His current contract is for two years, running through 2022-23. “I thought the energy was great, and that was the time when Yo-Yo Ma, who I am friends with, was there,” Masur said of his initial visits with the orchestra.

Ma encouraged Masur to become more involved with the group. “As you know with Yo-Yo, his enthusiasm is often very infectious, but also he understood that this program is something quite unique, and that it can be taken in many directions,” Masur said. Through words and actions, these young, hopeful musicians are helping to determine the direction of classical music. “I wanted to be part of that,” he said.

Masur, who holds the Robert Kohl and Clark Pellett Principal Conductor Chair, is typically with the Civic for at least three residencies every season, each based around a concert program. “So there is a regularity there, and we can start working on great repertoire and establishing a relationship,” he said. This season, he will lead the Brandenburg finale on Dec. 6 and conduct two other programs on Feb. 14 and May 2. Masur is also involved in regular discussions across the year with McCormick and other leaders around programming, guest conductors and other artistic concerns.

As for how Masur hopes to shape the Civic Orchestra, he sees himself as a colleague of the Civic musicians and as their guide. One of his main responsibilities is to create programs that not only help make them better individual musicians but also teach them how to listen, play together and  understand that an orchestra is a “communicative environment.” “Just mastering your instrument is not enough,” he said. “It has to be in the service of the composer and the people around you.”