Playing to the Cheap Seats

Chicago Arts Orchestra founder Javier Jose Mendoza discovered his calling when his fourth-grade class took a field trip to the Indianapolis Symphony. “I didn’t have musical parents,” he says. “This was my first exposure. But from that moment I was in love with it. The attraction was as much visual as auditory–the movements of the bows, the movements of the conductor, the way everything was synchronized, and the sounds all moving together. It amazed me how so much communication was going on between all these people, like some sort of telepathy.” He decided on the spot that he would be a conductor.

Mendoza, who’s 28, went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in conducting from Butler University and a master’s from the University of New Mexico. He came to Chicago in 2003 as a finalist for a conducting job at the University of Chicago; he wasn’t hired but decided to stick around anyway, attending a lot of local performances and sizing up the scene. “What I noticed was the audience was full of older people–and I don’t mean middle-aged,” he says. It was alarming to “see nobody in the audience your own age.” When he did spot a rare group of contemporaries at a free concert, they were being booted by an usher from unmarked seats reserved for donors. Wondering why they’d ever bother to come back and pay for tickets, Mendoza knew something had to be done. “This career that I’ve chosen not only is not appealing to young people,” he says, “but tends to be elitist.”

In the fall of 2004 Mendoza started the paperwork for the Chicago Arts Orchestra. Now a Catholic school music teacher and conductor of the Metropolis Youth Symphony in Arlington Heights, he primarily sees his orchestra as an educational vehicle aimed at “underserved” audiences–people under 40 and those not courted by bigger organizations–and is determined to keep ticket prices low, typically in the $15 range. With the help of percussionist Eric Renick, a Butler buddy who’s CAO’s artistic administrator, and an Indiana-based corporate sponsor, Innovative Design Offerings, the group presented its first concert a year ago and did two more within the next nine months–a schedule Mendoza says turned out to be overly ambitious. (The 2006-’07 season has been scaled back to two programs.)

Mendoza has been encouraged by the rapid growth of his board of directors. “I thought we’d go along for years, just me and friends of mine,” he says. “But there are people involved on the board now that have no connection with me. They believe in the idea, and this happened fairly quickly.” There’s no operating budget and administrative work is handled by volunteers, but the musicians–generally about 30 strong, including many Civic Orchestra players–receive modest compensation. Though the orchestra’s main focus is music of the 18th century, in September it will present 20th-century classical pieces by Latin American composers at the Athenaeum. With a budget of $16,000, this will be its costliest program so far. And for those impressionable fourth graders, there’ll be a special school-group matinee.

The need for change is also driving another new group in town. “This is about reimagining what an orchestra does,” violist Dominic Johnson says about the New Millennium Orchestra of Chicago. Observing that the age of the “supremely well compensated” traditional orchestra is on the decline, he concluded that the orchestra of the future will need to function more like a “big band,” a multipurpose collective closely involved with its community and able to provide anything from a string quartet to a DJ. Along with cofounders Francesco Milioto and violinist Blagomira Lipari, who serve as conductor and orchestra manager, he launched New Millennium in 2005 with an all-volunteer Earth Day event, Concert for Recycling, which included a 32-piece performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony as well as a remix by DJ JRick.

Johnson, a 32-year-old native of Port Townsend, Washington, is a college dropout who first started spending time in Chicago after joining the indie-rock chamber-music group the Rachel’s. He toured with them for three years, got bounced when the original violist rejoined, and subsequently won a spot with the Civic Orchestra, where he played for two years. In 2004 he botched his mandatory annual audition with the Civic and found himself bounced again. By January 2005 he’d started pulling New Millennium together, looking for musicians who liked the idea enough to play without pay. Milioto, who had a reputation as a musician’s conductor, proved to be a magnet. “When I mentioned to the players that he was involved, they all wanted to play for him,” Johnson says.

Over the last year New Millennium has done a dozen events, including a couple where performers were actually paid. Its larger concerts are held at Saint Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Church (which also donates NMO’s rehearsal space), Fourth Presbyterian Church, and the Cultural Center. Last month Johnson brought a string quartet to Rodan, a bar and restaurant in Wicker Park. He says he’s open to new music, though he finds most of it too academic. In the meantime he’s showcasing a classical repertoire in multimedia concerts he hopes will convey the music’s “sense of the heroic” to a new audience. “Since I haven’t dedicated ten years of my life to practicing six hours a day, chances I’m going to get into the CSO are pretty slim,” he says. “But I can be extremely versatile. That’s what I’m shooting for.” NMO will perform Mozart’s The Magic Flute with the Gallery 37 operatic vocal ensemble at the Cultural Center in August; admission is free, but reservations are suggested.

Three Arts for Sale

Fears about the future of the Three Arts Club came true this week when the club’s board announced that it’s selling the landmark building at 1300 N. Dearborn and will use the proceeds to establish a charitable arts foundation. The board said it had to ditch its plan to spend $24 million transforming the venerable residence for women artists into 31 “affordable” coed rental apartments for artists and an arts center because $5.5 million it was expecting in public funds failed to materialize. According to a spokesperson for the city’s department of housing, the money will not be forthcoming because “these are scarce affordable housing funds that can’t be used for arts programming components or to erase a $1.6 million operating deficit, as this group wanted to do.” Friends of the Three Arts Club, a group of former residents and neighbors who’ve waged a lengthy battle against the plan, issued its own statement, offering to install a new board that would return the club to its original mission. The Friends say a controversial zoning upgrade the building received last year could facilitate a larger private development. Alderman Burt Natarus says he’ll file to reverse the zoning change at the next City Council meeting.

Chicago Arts Orchestra Summer Fund-Raiser

WHEN: Thu 6/29, 7-10 PM

WHERE: Charlie’s, 1224 W. Webster

PRICE: $25


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.