By Jeremy Manier | Photos by Todd Rosenberg, Joel Wintermantle, and Nancy Wong

People of all ages came to the Stony Island Arts Bank on a brisk afternoon in early December to hear members of the Civic Orchestra play selections from Bach’s “Art of the Fugue,” and all seemed caught in the music’s spell.

A six-year-old girl in the front row smiled wryly as she rested her head in her mother’s lap. Older listeners nodded their heads in recognition. A young couple held hands, their eyes closed.

The most famous musician there was an audience member on this occasion. Cellist Yo-Yo Ma paced behind the full house of about 60, cocking his head at times toward the arched ceiling, where sounds of the woodwind ensemble resonated as if the place had been designed as a recital hall and not a bank.

Yo-Yo Ma and Civic Orchestra on Chicago’s South Side Video Link: UChicago Creative

Bringing the work of Bach to new places and new audiences was a key goal for the Bach Marathon, a collaboration between the University of Chicago and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, the prestigious training orchestra of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. It featured 10 free performances in one day at venues on the South Side and in downtown Chicago. The project brought together Ma, the CSO's Joyce Green Creative Consultant, and Prof. Theaster Gates, director of UChicago’s Arts + Public Life initiative, which develops meaningful artistic interactions in South Side communities. The marathon also was one in a series of four collaborations between UChicago and the CSO, which are both celebrating their 125th anniversaries this year.

Ma embraced Gates upon arriving at the Arts Bank, a 1923 building that Gates’ Rebuild Foundation has restored and transformed into a community showcase for cultural events and exhibitions. By the end of the woodwind performance, Ma’s excitement about the Arts Bank’s potential was clear.

“I just love this space!” Ma said. “I can’t think of anything more appropriate for Bach’s music.”

The audience shared his enthusiasm. Velma Jones, who traveled from surburban Calumet City, said it was an inspiring event.

“I want my granddaughters to experience this,” Jones said. “This was the bomb.”

‘The vulnerability becomes your strength’

Preparation for the Bach Marathon had intensified in November, when Ma and Gates talked with the young musicians at UChicago’s Arts Incubator in Washington Park about their vision for the performances. The moderator of the talk was Bill Michel, executive director of UChicago’s Logan Center for the Arts and a lead organizer of the partnership between the University and the Civic Orchestra. Inspiring students is a familiar role for Ma, who serves as a mentor for musicians in the Civic Orchestra.

Discussion at Arts Incubator
Yo-Yo Ma (left) and UChicago's Theaster Gates and Bill Michel discussed the Bach Marathon with members of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago during a Nov. 19 event at the Arts Incubator. (Photo by Joel Wintermantle)

But the combination of Ma and Gates brought new perspective for the musicians. For some it was their first trip to Chicago’s South Side, creating an opportunity to connect with audiences in new ways. Gates explained his conviction that immersive artistic projects can change people’s outlook, and ultimately help revitalize communities.

Part of the power of art, Gates said, is “the ability to develop and nurture other people’s capacity so that they develop these muscles for surviving and then thriving.”

For Ma, working with Gates on the South Side offered a long-sought chance to experience a vibrant part of a great city.

“As long as I’ve come to Chicago, I’ve wanted to really get to know the South Side the way that a guest knows a host,” Ma said. He told the musicians that by exploring new venues for their art, “You are doing something society doesn’t encourage us to do very often. You’re opening yourself to being vulnerable. And the vulnerability becomes your strength… Our job is to join people in the greatest possible communal experience.”

The four joint UChicago-CSO events this fall have further strengthened ties between the two institutions. In addition to the Bach Marathon, the Logan Center hosted a conversation on Sept. 21 with Maestro Riccardo Muti, music director of the CSO; on Nov. 16, UChicago Arts and the University’s Office of Civic Engagement partnered to bring an ensemble of CSO musicians for an educational performance at Burke Elementary School; and the anniversary series concluded with an original composition by Assistant Professor of Music Anthony Cheung, performed Dec. 11 by the Civic Orchestra during Fall Convocation.

“These anniversary events showed once more that our two institutions can do a great deal together to enrich the cultural life of the city. We look forward to continuing to partner with the CSO in the future as we continue to celebrate the importance of music in our communities,” said Michel.

Looking to future performances

Some of the connection between the musicians and audience at the Arts Bank came from their common appreciation for the space. (Other performance venues for the Bach Marathon included Kenwood Academy High School, the KLEO Community Family Life Center, the Arts Incubator, Blackstone Library, and the DuSable Leadership Academy.)

Map of Bach Marathon locations

The acoustics of the Arts Bank, which opened for events this fall, were a welcome surprise to Robbie Curl, who played bassoon and contrabassoon.

“It’s a very generous space,” Curl said. “You can play at almost any volume and the sound will carry.”

The warm sounds brought smiles to Marisa Murillo and her six-year-old daughter, Pilar Alexander. “I’m trying to teach her that there’s more to music than Taylor Swift,” Murillo said.

Yo-Yo Ma speaks at Stony Island Arts Bank
Yo-Yo Ma speaks with the Arts Bank audience about their interest in music and how best to bring more performances to the South Side. (Photo by Todd Rosenberg - CSO)

Yo-Yo Ma showed every sign of wanting to return to the South Side soon. Reflecting on his rapport with Gates, Ma said later, “I feel that I’ve found a brother.” After the Arts Bank performance, he even began to informally poll the audience on their preferences for follow-up shows.

“We should have a lot of music here,” he said as he walked through the audience. “What’s a good day for you?”

Originally published on December 14, 2015.