A few weeks ago the stage of the Chicago Cultural Center’s Claudia Cassidy Theater was crammed with instruments: tumbadoras and violins, an oud and a cimbalom, uilleann pipes and a Mexican guitaron. Under the direction of multi-instrumentalist and composer Willy Schwarz, the 23 members of the Chicago Immigrant Orchestra were frantically rehearsing for only their second performance since 1999, when they debuted at the inaugural Chicago World Music Festival.

The band members are all masters in different ethnic traditions–including samba, Polish highlander, Mandinkan folk, and Chinese, Arabic, and South Indian classical music. When they get together, says Schwarz, “It’s not so much a group as it is as an event.” Schwarz, who moved to Bremen, Germany, shortly after the first performance, has been in town for a month to prepare for this Sunday’s concert.

Born to immigrant parents in 1949 in Michigan–his Italian father and German mother met in Tehran in the early 30s and, both Jews, fled to the U.S. in 1940–he developed broad, old-world tastes at an early age. “My brothers were listening to Bill Haley and Chuck Berry and I was going to the library checking out records of sights and sounds from around the world,” he says. “Already as a little kid I wanted to hear it all.” Although he took piano lessons, the first instrument to really strike his fancy was the lute, which he picked up when he was 12. A few years later he formed a folk trio called the Young-uns’; by that point his arsenal also included the bass, recorder, and psaltery. With his mother serving as manager, the Young-uns’ toured the folk circuit in the mid-60s and even cut a demo in New York for RCA. Touring, Schwarz met and developed relationships with people like Theodore Bikel and Pete Seeger–“the whole warm and cuddly east-coast Jewish liberal folk crowd”–and discovered Balkan music and klezmer.

At 20 he moved to Bloomington to attend Indiana University, but his real education started with three extensive trips to India and the Middle East, where he studied with Ravi Shankar and did musical research in Nepal. “What I kept finding was what a direct line to the heart and soul of people their music is,” says Schwarz. “You can speak the language like the guy next door, you can learn their entire demographics and history and sociological things, that’s fine. But if you can sing one song convincingly, with decent pronunciation and the right ornamentation, you are literally accepted. I had experiences like that in Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey.”

By the 80s he was back in Bloomington, putting the knowledge he’d amassed to work in Eclecticity, a trio specializing in Balkan and klezmer music, and then hitting the road with Tom Waits to make the concert film Big Time. He landed in Chicago in 1988, after folk musician Stuart Rosenberg invited him to work on his WBEZ program Radio Gumbo. “My job was the cub ethnomusicologist,” says Schwarz, “running around the city, making phone calls and trying to make connections–for example, going down to the Cambodian Buddhist Temple to meet the orchestra that played there. It was like being a detective; it was fabulous.” Radio Gumbo lasted only a few years, but by then Schwarz had gotten into theater, as musical director for the Steppenwolf production of The Grapes of Wrath. Through the 90s he played in countless onstage ensembles for different productions, and composed the music for Mary Zimmerman’s plays Metamorphoses, The Odyssey, and Journey to the West.

In 1998 he married Sabine Mehlem, a German attorney, and decided to move to Bremen to be with his new wife. But before he left he staged a concert at Steppenwolf with a cast of local jazz and ethnic musicians, dubbing the band the All-American Immigrant Orchestra. Schwarz told Cultural Affairs program director Michael Orlove, then organizing the city’s first World Music Festival, about the gig and Orlove proposed that Schwarz put together a similar ensemble for the WMF, tweaking the concept to focus on international folk music rather than Schwarz’s own polyethnic compositions. The group was a hit, but a month later Schwarz was gone. He’s since launched a similar ensemble in Bremen, but Orlove dug up the money to bring the Chicago group back together for the Millennium Park celebration.

The members of the Immigrant Orchestra adapt their disparate approaches to suit specific traditions: Mwata Bowden manipulates his saxophone to evoke the microtonal Gypsy music of eastern Europe and Betty Xiang plays her two-string erhu on an Irish jig. Balancing all of these traditions, some of which employ radically different musical modes, rhythms, and notation, is daunting, but the task excites Schwarz. “We have some musicians who are ear musicians and can’t read a note of music, while others are incredible readers but have to learn to play in an ensemble when the forms aren’t clear.” As with the 1999 concert, rehearsal time is limited and not every performer can make all the practice sessions. “The only time we had 100 percent attendance [in 1999] was at the concert itself,” says Schwarz. “You couldn’t get more seat-of-the-pants, but I like that because you’re asking the musicians to rise to the same challenge.”

The Chicago Immigrant Orchestra plays Sunday, July 18, at 3:30 in the new Pritzker Pavilion, 100 N. Michigan, as part of the Millennium Park Grand Opening celebration. See Performance and Music for more information on the weekend’s events.

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