Yo-Yo Ma and Chicago Symphony Orchestra Set New Standard for Music Participation with Citizen Musician Initiative

Music connects. Music inspires. Music unites. Music heals. Music saves lives.  When I think about the power music has on people, these are the words that come to mind. It’s also the message Yo-Yo Ma and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Institute for Learning, Access and Training want to come to life with the new Citizen Musician initiative that launched on January 29th.  Spearheaded by the vision of Riccardo Muti, the new initiative was created to bring music to the largest number of people possible and to expand the Orchestra’s connection to its community.

For people who follow classical music closely, pianist Emanuel Ax and cellist Yo-Yo Ma are modern legends. Both are friends and life-long musical collaborators. When you hear them perform, it is usually to a piece of music that is long, hard, and performed in a major concert venue.  However, on this particular day, the duo along with clarinetist and Chicago native Anthony McGill, who is a member of the New York Metropolitan Opera, set out to establish what it means to be a “citizen musician.”

A citizen musician connects people through music offering inspiration, healing and fulfillment and uses their unique artistic creativity to address issues of concern in the music.  A citizen musician can be a professional or amateur musician, a music lover, or an entity that supports enriching people’s lives with music.

Prior to the formal launch in the afternoon, the day began with Ma, Ax, and McGill separately visiting schools, hospitals and community centers to perform for children and adults. Instead of breaking out the J.S. Bach or Mozart, they chose heartier renditions of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and “Happy Birthday.”

At 11:45 A.M., the Chicago Children’s Choir started a flash mob at Metro Millennium Station with Ma joining towards the end. How beautifully odd to see the master cellist mixing it up with kids at a train station, all for the sole purpose of sharing the joy of music with people. The following is footage I found on YouTube, but does not include Ma. (More after video.)

The afternoon event started with a performance of the first movement from Felix Mendelssohn’s Octet in E Flat Major, written when it he seventeen.  Performers included an eclectic bunch: CSO violist Catherine Brubaker; Dr. Bobby Ellen Kimbel Annual Fellow Gabriel Cabezas from the Curtis Institute; CSO Concertmaster Robert Chen; Civic Orchestra of Chicago Concertmaster Jaime Gorgojo; Lyric Opera of Chicago Concertmaster Robert Hanford; Chicago violist Rami Solomonow; CSO violinist Susan Synnnestvedt and, of course, Yo-Yo Ma.

The Octet by Mendelssohn was specifically chosen because, to Ma and Ax, the composer is an example of the consummate citizen musician. Many people are familiar with Mendelssohn’s music. But he also dedicated his time to music education, and reviving interest in neglected composers of the past.  He founded the Leipzig Conservatory so that more people would have access to music. He is also credited with reviving the music of J.S. Bach and performed and studied Bach’s music regularly.  Mendelssohn was also a virtuoso pianist and an excellent conductor. Being a musician, to him, meant that he would explore as many areas as his talent allowed.

As Ma, Ax, and McGill described each of their experiences during the morning, I recalled my own experiences as a musician playing for people anywhere simply because I loved playing guitar. It isn’t something I am able to do as often, but it was one of the reasons I started this blog, to share my passion for music and try to show that classical music and other music aren’t all that different…a lot of the time.  Viola and I have frequently examples of how music classical music and heavy metal, to distinct music genres, are connected in more way than we like to think.

For anyone who has a passion for music, regardless of whether you perform a musical instrument or not, can become a citizen musician. Or, perhaps you are already are one.

Learn more or submit your story at www.citizenmusician.org.

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2 comments on “Yo-Yo Ma and Chicago Symphony Orchestra Set New Standard for Music Participation with Citizen Musician Initiative
  1. I just posted some thoughts on this subject as well:

    I’m going to add a link to this post in mine so people can get some good coverage out of Chicago.


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