What’s a training orchestra? Defining the Civic Orchestra of Chicago

During my two years here, many people have asked me, “What is the Civic Orchestra? Is it a professional group?  Is it an internship?  Is it an educational program?”  The truth is, it contains a bit of all of these elements while also instilling our greater mission of fulfilling a civic duty to advocate for the arts in the greater Chicagoland community.

Who are we?

The Civic Orchestra of Chicago, founded in 1919 by the second music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Frederick Stock, is comprised of pre-professional musicians.  Members of Civic mostly include graduate and post-graduate students from Chicago-area schools, such as Roosevelt, DePaul, and Northwestern. Most Civic members are between the ages of 22-30.  In addition to Chicago-area students and residents, many members move to Chicago solely to play with the orchestra, as it is one of the few training orchestras of its kind in the country.  Some members work part-time jobs around their Civic obligations, and others find plenty of freelance playing and teaching opportunities in the area.

What is the Civic Orchestra?

Finding steady work as a professional musician can be challenging, especially right out of school.  The Civic Orchestra acts as a kind of stepping stone into that professional world.  Members are paid a stipend for their activity with the orchestra, which includes eight concerts at Symphony Center, as well as other performances at various community venues. All concerts and performances are free and open to the public. In addition to these responsibilities, Civic Orchestra members are given special access to learn from Chicago Symphony Orchestra musicians, which includes:

  • regular invitations to attend CSO rehearsals
  • playing under the direction of Riccardo Muti in open rehearsal settings
  • sectional coachings from CSO musicians on all of our concert programs
  • complimentary tickets to most CSO concerts
  • several opportunities each season to play side-by-side with CSO members
  • one free lesson with a CSO musician of his or her choice

These interactions with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra give us an opportunity to learn from the best and is really what makes the Civic Orchestra so special.

An Orchestra for the Community

At its heart, the Civic Orchestra aims to give back to the community of Chicago.  We primarily do this through our free, public concerts, but we also do special community projects throughout the year.  One of my favorite experiences with Civic has been the annual Bach Marathon.  The Bach Marathon began three seasons ago when our Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant Yo-Yo Ma challenged the Civic Orchestra to perform all of the Brandenburg Concerti at public venues throughout Chicago so that people would be inundated by Bach throughout their day.  The Civic Orchestra welcomed this project and has turned it into an annual tradition.  Each year, the project is presented in partnership with a community organization. This year we partnered with students from the People’s Music School which allowed us to perform this music alongside aspiring young musicians from the city.  During this event, the orchestra breaks into six chamber ensembles to perform each of the Brandenburg Concerti.  The ensembles rehearse on their own but are coached by CSO musicians, Yo-Yo Ma, and audience engagement specialists (for example, this season we worked with David Wallace).  In addition to rehearsing the music, each group is tasked with presenting the piece to the community in a manner which it can best be understood, absorbed, and above all, enjoyed.  On the day of the Bach Marathon each group performs their Brandenburg concerto at three different public spaces in Chicago.  This uniquely Civic event has been an incredible experience that has helped me grow as a person and musician.

The Civic Orchestra is a signature program of the Negaunee Music Institute at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The Institute offers education and community programs that annually engage more than 200,000 people of diverse backgrounds. To learn more, visit cso.org/civic

By Matt Baker

Photo by Todd Rosenberg