Independent Projects, Prokofiev, and Purpose Over Pain: Reflecting on November 20 – December 17, 2019

After the Civic Orchestra Bach Marathon ended on November 18, the fellows pulled off a very quick turnaround and attended a November 20 workshop with Sara Slawnick of 3Arts. Her presentation focused on how grants are awarded – information we would all quickly put to use as we compiled our Independent Project letters of intent and final proposals. This season will feature a wide variety of fellows’ Independent Projects: from mental health round tables, to composition workshops in CPS, to bringing in guest artists for performances. All the fellows turned in complete proposals and gave presentations to a panel who pushed us on why our projects were important and how exactly we would achieve our goals.


Our second mainstage concert in Orchestra Hall interrupted the Independent project preparation, but we couldn’t really be mad, because Erina Yashima, the CSO’s Solti Conducting Apprentice from 2016-2019, made her return to Symphony Center to lead us in a hefty program featuring Berio’s Folk Songs with soloist Annie Rosen, Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel, and Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. Erina referred to Chicago as her “musical home” even now that she’s moved to Philadelphia to take up the position of assistant conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and it felt like a true homecoming having her on the podium working with us on this massive repertoire. The fellows also enjoyed getting to catch-up with her after the concert at a reception provided by our generous sponsor, Lori Julian.

During the concert rehearsal cycle, the fellows hosted the inaugural Civic Orchestra Town Hall of the season. Juan Gabriel Olivares and I facilitated the Town Hall as representatives of the Regular Member Engagement Committee; working in this capacity is particularly important to me because I spent my first two seasons in Civic as a regular member. The Town Hall functioned as an open forum to check-in with our colleagues on how the season is going and to receive feedback on what orchestra members would like to add or improve to the Civic calendar for a better overall experience.

“As a new Civic member, attending the town hall meeting made me feel more connected and involved. I definitely would like another one to happen, and I’m curious to see the progress of all the things we discussed,” said Genevieve Smelser, a first year violinist who attended the Town Hall.

“It’s a great format to discuss ways of improving the Civic experience,” Lindsey Orcutt, second year bassist, added. “I’m looking forward to hearing ideas from other Civic members in future meetings and seeing how all of our ideas can be implemented!”

The Town Hall conversation was wide-ranging, covering ground like the Bach Marathon preparations, social events during orientation, brainstorming ways to expand Civic’s chamber music series, and better connect with our CSO mentors. The Engagement Committee will follow-up on all of the Town Hall ideas by meeting with Civic administrative staff in January.


Before the fellows left for our winter break, we had one more big project to work on: Purpose Over Pain.

Purpose Over Pain isn’t really about the fellows, so I don’t want to spend too much time talking about my personal experience. Rather, Purpose Over Pain is about the families with which we work.

Small groups of fellows met with two families each – Chicago residents who have lost an immediate family member to gun violence. The parents and grandparents we met with displayed an extraordinary amount of trust us. They shared their stories and told us about their loved ones. After spending time with the families, each group of fellows spent the rest of the week writing original songs for and about these lost family members. The writing process pushed us all beyond our usual capacity, but that ultimately didn’t matter; the families were counting on us to write these songs…so we did.

We reconvened with the families to workshop our songs at Breakthrough FamilyPlex, where the three singers involved in the project joined us: Keanon Kyle, Meaghan McNeal, and Sarah Ponder. This was the first time many of the parents heard the songs, and we eagerly took in their feedback, making adjustments and edits to ensure each family got a song that resonated with them. Throughout this process we were guided by Sara Lee and Rex Horan, from the Irene Taylor Trust. They provided two days of songwriting workshops before the project began, and composed and performed two songs of their own during the residency.

Families and Civic musicians perform the original songs during the December 2019 Purpose over Pain concert in Chicago’s Austin Town Hall. Todd Rosenberg Photography

From there, we went to the recording studio to lay down each track and then it was on to the final performance, which took place at Austin Town Hall. Each family was given space to speak before their songs, and some even performed with us, singing or playing percussion. The final performance technically took place after Dec 17, which is after the timeline I was assigned to cover, so Tabitha Oh will tell you more about it in the next review!


By Civic Fellow and violin Hannah Christiansen.

TOP: The Civic violin section responds to a queue from Erina Yashima during a December 2019 concert. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.