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Chicago Symphony goes to jail

1 Robert Levine

…although not for insider note trading, which is not yet illegal.

Addressing the annual meeting of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association on Wednesday, [Riccardo Muti] revealed several initiatives he has planned with the orchestra once he settles into his new post in September 2010. And one of them involves at-risk youth.

The most innovative is programming designed to give juvenile offenders and youth at risk opportunities to participate in music as students, performers, composers and audience members. The basic idea, said the 68-year-old Muti, is to contribute to the development of a positive self-image among participants, counteracting the stigma of having served in detention facilities.

“We know this is a great orchestra, but today that’s not enough,” Muti told me. “This orchestra must be an ambassador to the community, nation and world, representing the culture of our city. Because of President Obama, Chicago is in the eyes of the entire world. This gives the CSO an even greater opportunity, and indeed a duty, to bring people together.”

The initiative will be undertaken in partnership with several area organizations already serving incarcerated youth through the arts, added Muti, who begins a two-week series of CSO subscription concerts Thursday.

An interesting concept, and reflective of the wider trend in the orchestra community to make community engagement a core strategy. It’s also oddly reminiscent of this entry in the resume of the new CEO of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Allison Vulgamore:

In 2007, after 14 years in Atlanta, Vulgamore went on a sabbatical - an unusual perk in the orchestra world. She worked her last day at the Atlanta Symphony not knowing how she would spend the next six months.

“I purposely decided to not have a sabbatical plan, so first I wanted to go west and pull my health together for the first month. Then I came back to Atlanta and let the universe tell me where I was going.

“My [now] 17-year-old niece was telling me about volunteer work she was doing in Costa Rica, and the weekend of the Academy Awards I was watching TV, and Turner was playing Academy Award-winning movies, the way it always does. I think I watched for 24 hours - Out of Africa, Casablanca, Lawrence of Arabia. I was searching for something to do with international volunteerism, and I was gone two weeks later to open a base camp in Morocco.”

She had expected to teach business concepts to young women, but on her third day the program director asked her to change assignments - “I swear he said women’s prison,” she says - but in fact she ended up teaching music in a boys’ prison, with no instruments and no language skills.

“I had 60 boys twice a day for 90 minutes. I had my body to hit and make hissing sounds. The long and the short of it is, we made music.”

They put on a concert, singing Dona nobis pacem as a round, and “Country Roads.”

As a finale, the boys told Vulgamore they wanted to sing a traditional wedding song honoring the bride.

“What they didn’t tell me was that the big surprise at the end is to lift up the bride, and so they lifted me up over their heads. I was overwhelmed.”

Who knows whether any of this actually does any good. But it’s hard to imagine that it could hurt, and it’s certainly good for those in the arts, especially those who have succeeded economically, to see first-hand that the world is more than old Italian violins, good health care, and generous expense accounts.

I’ve only played in a prison once, early in my time in St. Paul, at a high-security prison in Stillwater. What I recall are the security (which was impressive), the momentary inkling of what it might be like to be cooped up in such a place for years, and how attentive the audience was. I don’t know if we did any good that day, but the prisoners who came (and there were quite a few) seemed to enjoy and appreciate the concert, which was the same show as we would have done for most run-outs.

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