The Chicago Children's Choir at the Millennium Metra Station.
The Chicago Children's Choir at the Millennium Metra Station.

OK, the name is a dud, but you can’t not like the big, sunny idea behind the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s new Citizen Musician initiative. It aims to make the world a better place by taking live music everywhere.

Intended to ignite a movement among musicians and music lovers of all stripes, the initiative was launched January 29, with a morning of surprise appearances by classical music icons Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, hot young clarinetist Anthony McGill, and others. Hopscotching through the city’s demographics, they hit a half-dozen spots, including the Chicago Children’s Hospital, a CHA building for seniors, and the Parkway Community House in Woodlawn. At the Millennium Metra station downtown, unsuspecting travelers were treated to a flash-mob-esque performance by the Chicago Children’s Choir—accompanied by Ma, who materialized, cello in tow, from the station’s Starbucks and recruited bystanders to join in.

At an event at the Cultural Center that afternoon, CSO president Deborah Rutter credited music director Riccardo Muti as the driving force behind the project. He “gave us a charge to deepen the connection with the community and go places we’ve never gone before,” she said. Muti himself was conspicuously absent—he wouldn’t be flying in from Europe for his two-week winter residency at Symphony Center until the following Monday. But no problem. Rutter explained that Muti “knew that he couldn’t do this alone—he needed a partner.” Ergo Ma, hired last winter to be the CSO’s first creative consultant and the face of Citizen Musician.

Although billed as a “forum,” the Cultural Center event was mostly back patting and happy talk, bookended by two rapturous performances: the first movement of Mendelssohn’s E-flat octet as played by Ma and an ensemble of sterling local string players—among them, the concertmasters of both the Civic and Lyric Opera orchestras and CSO concertmaster Robert Chen—followed by John Williams’s Aaron Copeland-inspired quartet, Air and Simple Gifts, which most of us last heard when Ma and McGill played it with Itzhak Perlman and Gabriela Montero at Barack Obama’s icy inauguration. This time around Ma, McGill, Ax, and Chen did the honors.

Ma said “everyone wants music in their lives” and Ax “leaked” the news that next year’s Citizen Musician events will likely include a “piano free-for-all” with kids and amateurs. Rene Roy—who produces shows for Children’s Hospital’s in-house television network, Skylight TV—described the scene that unfolded when Ma appeared there, played “This Little Light of Mine,” and took a call from a patient who’s also a cellist. But the most powerful words came from McGill, principal clarinetist with New York’s Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, who shares south-side Chicago roots with the kids he’d met that morning at the Parkway Community House. “Everywhere I go,” McGill told the Cultural Center crowd, “I talk about [Chicago’s] Merit School of Music, where I was nurtured beyond imagination. I grew up there, it was my musical family. Everything that’s happened in my life I pretty much owe to them.”

Citizen musicianship is “sitting right here in this room today,” Rutter said. She called on everyone present to “go out into the world” and “use their unique artistic creativity to address issues of concern.” That struck a chord. I’ve long thought life would be better if it played out more like a musical. What could it hurt if, say, those warring throngs in Cairo were to burst into a chorus of “Aquarius”?

But Rutter and company may be hoping Citizen Musician can help address an issue of concern much closer to home: the bleak future that seems to be in store for organizations like the CSO as the number of concertgoers dwindles.

Studies by both the League of American Orchestras and the National Endowment for the Arts show that the percentage of the general population attending classical concerts fell by 20 percent between 2002 and 2008. Last year alone CSO subscription revenue was down 7 percent, and though single ticket sales rose 3 percent, the trend isn’t encouraging. The problem isn’t limited to music, either. “Audiences for all kinds of live events are shrinking,” says LAO spokesman John Bence.

When I interviewed Rutter at the time of her appointment, in 2003, she already had a goal of “getting more people in those seats” by building a “broader community sense of pride and joy in the orchestra.” She didn’t want symphony concerts to be perceived as “something only other people do.” The current industry thinking on audience building is that you’ve got to reach folks where they are. So, for example, the Knight Foundation is funding a “Random Acts of Culture” program that puts ballet in shopping malls and brass ensembles in airports in cities like Miami, Detroit, and Akron.

The CSO is giving vocal lessons to incarcerated young women, training musicians in the Civic Orchestra, planning a concert series for tots, and working with a charter school. But how much more we’ll see in the way of celebrity musicians concertizing at Chicago retirement homes and community centers is an open question. For now, the main thrust of Citizen Musician seems to be a public recruitment campaign at its interactive website,, which also launched on January 29. Created to be a hub for the nascent grassroots effort, it’ll list Citizen Musician events, tell participants’ stories, and provide a space for swapping information and making connections.

Rutter noted at the Cultural Center event that Citizen Musician is still a work in progress. She couldn’t have imagined that she’d be taking the stage at Symphony Center five days later to announce that the man who set that work in motion, maestro Muti, would be missing his long-awaited return-to-Chicago concerts. Muti—who famously took ill last fall, just before his inaugural CSO gala benefit performance as music director, and had gone home to Italy to recuperate—pitched forward off the podium, presto con forza, when he fainted during a rehearsal on Thursday, February 3. On Monday the citizen musician-in-chief underwent surgery for multiple facial and jaw fractures. At press time he was still hospitalized and undergoing tests, his jaw wired shut.

So under the circumstances, fellow citizens, it looks like the next move is ours. Pick up your instruments.