For ages, mankind has been fascinated by rivers, not simply as natural resources and avenues of commercial conveyance, but also as symbols, metaphors and ideas. Countless artists, composers, writers and thinkers have pondered the significance of these wondrous bodies of water and how they impact on culture, society, geopolitics and, closer to our own time, the very future of our planet.
Beginning this week, nearly 20 Chicago institutions are joining the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association in a month-long, multi-genre festival examining the importance of rivers in music and culture. There will be much food for thought, many springboards for further discussion and many pieces of "water" music, some rarely heard.
The musical basis of "Rivers: Nature. Power. Culture.," as the festival is called, will consist of symphony concerts, chamber music performances, jazz and other presentations that cut across the spectrum of CSO and CSO Presents series. Various special events – including a daylong symposium, with musical interludes performed by cellist and CSO creative consultant Yo-Yo Ma and other musicians – will explore the connections between our natural environment and our cultural heritage.
Chicago is the ideal city to originate such a festival, according to Martha Gilmer, the CSOA's vice president of artistic administration and one of the "Rivers" planners.
"The Chicago River is a defining characteristic of the city, so it is a perfect stepping-off point for a rivers festival," she says. "The festival allows us to present music across a lot of genres, music that might not be instantly known to our audiences but that could spark their curiosity by virtue of the fact that it's all tied to the same, grand theme."
As for the festival's relevance to the orchestra's Citizen Musician initiative, Gilmer says, "we are, as citizens, paying tribute to our great city, a city that lives on the shores of a major river. And the new partners who came aboard after we announced the festival last year – groups such as Friends of the Chicago River, Chicago Architecture Foundation and the Wetlands Initiative – are people we wouldn't otherwise have had the opportunity to work with."
Creating such dialogues and collaborations among civic and cultural institutions, she says, is "very much what Citizen Musician is intended to do."
The Chicago arts community knows of Riccardo Muti's concern for justice and youth music education, for making good music available to all. What many Chicagoans do not know, however, is the CSO music director's serious concern for the environment and the natural world. In fact, the maestro speaks about water and its power in a video clip posted at the "Rivers" section of the CSO website.
"Often we don't realize how important water is for the future of our planet, for our life, for our health. We take it for granted," Muti observes. "And so our concerts this month underline the importance water has to all of us, through the fantastic music that has been inspired over the years by rivers, lakes and seas."
For her part, Gilmer voices the hope that the conversations initiated among the participating groups in the weeks ahead will continue long past the festival itself.
"This is not a throwaway concept we have put together – it's quite the contrary," she says. "It really asks us to look even more deeply into the meaning of music, its power and what it can do, including bringing new people into the experience of music, and encouraging people who have been going (to the CSO) for a long time to regard it in a different way."
Rivers Festival classical highlights
+ Thursday-Tuesday. Conductor Mei-Ann Chen kicks off the festival by leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's first performances of Florence Price's 1934 symphonic suite "Mississippi River." A longtime Chicago resident, Price was the first African-American woman composer to have her music played by a major orchestra, thanks to the CSO at the Century of Progress World's Fair here in 1933.
+ May 13 and May 15. Yo-Yo Ma is joined by musicians from the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and CSO for two programs inspired by nature and flowing waters. The free Civic program is highlighted by John Luther Adams' "A Northern Suite" and Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony, which the young musicians will play from memory and without a conductor. The May 15 concert will include Dvorak's "American" Quartet, played by Ma and CSO members.
+ May 16-21. Rivers of all sorts are evoked by the works making up a CSO subscription program under Juanjo Mena: Smetana's "The Moldau"; Toru Takemitsu's "riverrun," with piano soloist Peter Serkin; Villa-Lobos' "Amazonas"; and Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony.
+ May 18. The Rivers Symposium brings a day of discussion by panels of historians, artists and engineers, focusing on the Mississippi and Amazon rivers. Each panel will be followed by performances of related musical works.
+ May 19. Three singers and a pianist will join CSO musicians for an all-Schubert program at the Art Institute of Chicago that includes the song "Die Forelle" ("The Trout") and the composer's "Trout" Quintet.
+ May 19. French-Canadian pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin performs water-themed works by Faure, Debussy and Ravel as part of his recital program.
+ May 23-28. Not specifically rivers-related but evocative of Central and South American peoples and cultures, Ginastera's "Panambi" Suite and Revueltas' "La Noche de los Mayas" frame a CSO subscription program led by Carlos Miguel Prieto.
+ May 30-June 4. Jaap van Zweden conducts the first CSO performances of resident composer Mason Bates' "Liquid Interface," inspired by states of water, from frozen to evaporated.
+ June 3. Two electro-acoustic "water" pieces by composers Marcos Balter and Kaija Saariaho share the bill with Bates' CSO-commissioned "Difficult Bamboo" (world premiere) in the final MusicNOW concert of the season, at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.
+ June 9. The festival's culminating event, "Shall We Gather at the River?," takes place throughout the afternoon at the riverfront Ping Tom Memorial Park in Chicago's Chinatown. Musical performances and family activities are scheduled. Meanwhile, CSO brass players will travel by boat along the Chicago River from Michigan Avenue to the park, making music as they go. Once they arrive at the park, Muti will lead them and the Chicago Children's Choir in Verdi's grand chorus, "Va, pensiero."
Unless otherwise noted, all festival events will be held at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave. Tickets and further information: 312-294-3000 or cso.org/rivers.
Sharps and flats
After 61 years as music director of the Chicago Chamber Orchestra, Dieter Kober is retiring. He will pass the baton to his successor, Robert Turizziani, music director of Ohio's River Cities Symphony at the ensemble's free Mother's Day concert, 2 p.m. Sunday in Fourth Presbyterian Church, 126 E. Chestnut St. Seating is limited; 312-857-3094, chicagochamberorch.org.
Christopher Bell, director of the Grant Park Music Festival Chorus, is the recipient of Chorus America's 2013 founders award for development of the professional choral art. The award, which honors individuals who have made significant contributions to the field, will be presented at Chorus America's annual conference in Seattle in June.