The Civic Orchestra of Chicago performs Don Quixote.

Will Riley Robbins is a Citizen Musician Fellow of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. A member of the orchestra for the past two years, Robbins has participated in each Artistic Challenge, the most recent culminating in a performance at Orchestra Hall on April 7, 2014. The Artistic Challenge was inspired by Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant Yo-Yo Ma, who tasked the musicians of Civic to attain ownership of the music they are performing. To learn more about the Civic Orchestra, please visit cso.org/Civic.

From its inception, the 2013-2014 Artistic Challenge seemed pretty open-ended. We were charged with “owning” Richard Strauss’ Don Quixote. Yo-Yo Ma would play the cello, with Carlos Miguel Prieto on the podium and the Civic Orchestra on the stage. But the stage was dark — actually we didn’t even know if there would be a stage. What does ownership look like? We had no idea.

Over the course of the next several months, we experimented with various approaches to make the music our own. Overall, we performed the piece several times in its entirety at different points in the season to a variety of audiences.

The process certainly wasn’t pizza and beer throughout (although that did happen a few times … literally). The best way to describe it would be “messy.” We were a group just under 100 people, dealing with a good chunk of our collective time, and we were each searching — or refusing to search — for a way to gain ownership of this piece. “Messy” seems to be an appropriate descriptor.

I believe the orchestra would agree that working with Yo-Yo and Carlos Miguel, and having the CSO coaches sit in on two of our reading sessions, proved the most valuable part of the whole challenge. Yo-Yo and Carlos Miguel provide a perfectly meshed and entirely complementary creative fabric — an unmatched level of energy and commitment, an energy that was undeniably infectious. The CSO coaches complemented each other’s perspectives on our interpretation of the music, noting how we needed to function as individual parts in such a thickly orchestrated piece. The work we did with these individuals proved to be so fulfilling, because it was at a deep level not always addressed in the day to day. It was the type of work that can apply to anything — from Strauss to Sciarrino, and from Monteverdi to Mozart.

A few months ago, the orchestra voted to play Don Juan on the program as well. The general sense was that we wanted to work on a piece that was A) not Don Quixote, B) something we all have to work toward for auditions, and C) a seriously awesome way to open a concert. Not everyone was on board with this idea, but I think it ended up working pretty well — I would almost say that it was the most energized part of the entire program.

Within the weeks leading up to the concert, an almost tangible doom dominated the orchestra’s mood. But why? Weren’t we charged with having a deeper artistic goal? Weren’t we about to perform with some of the foremost stars in classical music? What’s the deal?!

I think we were tired of Don Quixote. We were tired of running into windmills, seeing Dulcinea in country bumpkins and spearing sheep. Being exhausted is dangerous. Having a portion of the orchestra check out and phone it in is arguably even worse. There was a sense of uncertainty about the concert. Would it be effective? Would the audience even care about our stories? Are we being dumb? Yo-Yo stressed that we should make the concert about the audience. Having conductor-less rehearsals and debating articulations, tempi, dynamics or any other number of musical elements is what we were trained to do. It is very personal and can often sting when you put your ideas out there and they are rejected by the group. But we are adults and we treat each other with respect. We respectfully disagree because we value the people we disagree with, and we understand that they are committed to their version of what’s right. Without such a discourse of often very charged individuals, it is difficult for the group to grow.

Sure, our concert went well. People were moved, from aficionados and CSO musicians to grandparents who know that they heard you play that one piece that one time several years ago in youth orchestra (“You play the oboe, right?”). Did our process justify the result? Could we have been as effective if our rehearsals were structured in a different way? I don’t know. What I do know is that like last year’s Artistic Challenge, Don Quixote proved very challenging. What I hope never changes about the challenge is that I experience my colleagues in a different light.

The challenge provokes discussion of the music, the philosophy behind it and what it means to be an artist. Here is where we have grown and I hope will always grow.

We professional musicians are a relatively small community. The degree of separation between people in L.A. and Boston or New York and Chicago is often zero and never really more than one. I know the Artistic Challenge strengthens the community of Civic. It is probably the most difficult aspect to measure but likely the most important for us besides learning from the masters. Developing a network of people whose artistic integrity you know on a deeper level is priceless. In a way, it was never about Don Quixote or Strauss, Prieto or Yo-Yo; they were all important, inspirational catalysts for our coming together, and I wouldn’t trade my time with them for anything. At its core, the real Artistic Challenge is about the musicians in Civic. It is often furthered the most over a few beers at Miller’s Pub, pre-rehearsal Potbelly sandwiches and in discussions on the train ride home. It is about our collective voice, our passions and direction in our budding careers, and we would do well to never lose sight of that.

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