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CSO Rivers Festival explores the enchantment of waterways, their impact on human history

Submitted by on May 9, 2013 – 4:29 pm

Preview: Month-long series of concerts and lectures, and a day of cleaning the Chicago River, will underscore the influence of rivers on human life.

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Literally and metaphorically, rivers seem to flow in every direction across our lives; indeed, across life. It’s not hard to see how the Chicago Symphony Orchestra might have hit on the concept of its Rivers Festival, a multifaceted month-long exploration and tribute that opens musically May 9 at Orchestra Hall.

Much pondering has been poured into rivers – by conquerors and explorers, by poets and philosophers, by builders of cities like Chicago. Such is the cultural mirror held up in the CSO’s riff on rivers, which winds on through June 9 in themed concerts and lectures, in concert venues and public spaces – even on the banks of the Chicago River.

In this video posted on the CSO webite, Riccardo Muti, the orchestra’s Italian-born music director, says he cannot remember a time when he lived away from water, when his life was not touched by its flow and churn, its nurturing. His is an old, old story.

Heraclitus of Ephesus, a philosopher of ancient Greece, illustrating the ceaselessness of change, observed that you cannot step twice into the same river. He saw in rivers the very essence of change, evolution, possibility. Like their motion, their influence is never-ending. And yet, viewed from a different perspective, so is their constancy: In the musical “Showboat,” the weary dock worker Joe muses how different the implacable Mississippi River’s life is from his own. While he sweats and strains, that Ol’ Man River “don’t do nothin’, he just keeps rollin’ along.”

The CSO elaborates the title of its month-long festival as “Rivers: Nature. Power. Culture.”

“The concepts within the Rivers Festival make people think across categories,” says the celebrated cellist and CSO creative consultant Yo-Yo Ma, who took an active part in shaping the festival. He views this melding of concerts and lectures as emblematic of a new, socially integrated way of taking responsibility for our environment.

“In our era, change is actually regular. What is irregular is the lack of recognition of change, the inability to think across disciplines,” says Ma. “Through a festival of this kind, and by convening partners who embrace thinking across boundaries, the CSO is on the forefront of changing how we think in ways which are needed to do the massive work that will benefit societies into the future.”

The menu of extra-musical events tied to the rivers theme is extensive. Through the CSO’s Institute for Learning, Access and Training, four Chicago elementary schools — Evers, Kipling, Swift and Water — have been studying the importance of rivers in their classrooms. The children also will help with Friends of the Chicago River’s annual Chicago River Day, May 11, focusing on two clean-up sites: Lake Katherine Nature Center in Palos Heights and Ronan Park East and Horner Park (Berteau Avenue) in Chicago.

Volunteers from throughout Chicagoland are invited to join CSO staff during the clean-up day, which begins at 9 a.m. Pop-up performances at selected sites along the Chicago River will also take place. More information about Chicago River Day and public registration is available at chicagoriver.org.

A day-long festival symposium May 18 will explore the physical, economic, political, and cultural forces exerted by rivers through a sequence of conversations and music.

Using the Mississippi and Amazon Rivers as case studies, panels of historians, artists and engineers will discuss connections between the timeless influence of waterways and the creation of music. Along with Ma, participants will include John Briscoe, professor of environmental engineering at Harvard University; David Blackbourn, professor of history at Vanderbilt University, and Brazilian-American composer and performer Clarice Assad.

“All of these activities, which stretch far beyond the boundaries of music, reflect the Chicago Symphony’s wider interest in raising awareness about the importance of waterways in the development of all cultures,” says Martha Gilmer, CSO vice president for artistic planning and audience development. “For us to build a festival around this theme was not only a logical choice, but a vital one.”

The CSO’s festival collaborators include the Chicago Park District, Chicago Architecture Foundation, Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, Friends of the Chicago River, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Art Works.

On the music side, Muti, the orchestra and guest conductors over the next month will present a wide swath of works reflective of water and its myriad relationships with mankind.

“Many times we don’t realize how important water is for the future of our planet, for our life, for our commercial activity, for our health,” says Muti. “We take it for granted. And so it is through these concerts we see the music that underlines the importance water has through the rivers, lakes, and seas that inspired the music.”

Here are a few intriguing works in store from the CSO at Orchestra Hall:

  • May 9-14. Mei-Ann Chen, conductor: Florence Price’s “Mississippi River.”
  • May 16-21. Juanjo Mena, conductor; Peter Serkin, piano: Smetana “The Moldau,” Takemitsu “riverrun,” Villa-Lobos “Amazonas.”
  • May 23-28. Carlos Miguel Prieto, conductor: Ginastera Suite from “Panambi,” Revueltas “La noche de los mayas.”
  • May 30-June 4. Jaap van Zweden, conductor: Mason Bates “Liquid Interface.”

Also on tap by other performers at various venues:

  • May 19. CSO Chamber Music Series, Art Institute of Chicago: Schubert “Auf der Donau (On the Danube),” “Auf dem Flusse (On the River),” “Die Forelle” (The Trout, song), Piano Quintet in A major (“The Trout”).
  • Also May 19. Pianist Marc-André Hamelin, at Orchestra Hall: Debussy “Reflets dans l’eau (Reflections in the Water),” Ravel “Jeux d’eau (Water Games).”
  • May 24. Chicago Jazz Philharmonic directed by Orbert Davis, at Orchestra Hall: “The Chicago River,” a new work composed by Davis.
  • June 3. MusicNOW: Musicians of the CSO at Harris Theater. Balter “Live Water,” Saariaho “Trois rivières (Three Rivers).”

The festival concludes June 9 when members of the CSO perform on a barge cruise along the Chicago River, ending at Ping Tom Memorial Park where Muti will conduct the Chicago Children’s Choir in Verdi’s “Va, pensiero” in a dedication of the park’s new boathouse.

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Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Riccardo Muti gazes out over the Chicago River. (Courtesy Chicago Symphony Orchestra). Descending: The mouth of the Chicago River from the Rush Street bridge in the 1890s. (Wiki Commons) Cellist and CSO creative consultant Yo-Yo Ma. (Photo by Todd Rosenberg) The Chicago River, before and after its reversal. (Wiki Commons) The Amazon Rivers stretches nearly the breadth of the South American continent. (Wiki Commons) Construction work on the Chicago River in 1899. (“The Lost Panoramas,” published by CityFilesPress.com) Below: An excursion boat heads eastward beneath the State Street bridge in 1910. (“The Lost Panoramas”) The State Street bridge under construction in 1902. (“The Lost Panoramas”) 

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