Max Raimi is a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra viola section. His Citizen Musician project offered periodic performances with CSO colleagues and coaching sessions for students at the Merit School of Music throughout the season.
A crowd of 200 music students ambled into Gottlieb Hall at the Merit School of Music in Chicago’s west Loop on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in mid-April. The occasion was nothing new – these music students routinely give up their Saturdays from September through early May in pursuit of musical excellence as part of Merit’s Tuition-Free conservatory, which provides intensive instruction in instrumental technique, ensemble performance, music theory, music history and more to talented students from across the city and suburbs.
The students from the audience represented many musical backgrounds — jazz, classical, vocal, and piano, just to name a few — but the one trait they all shared is their resolute dedication to their musical studies.
With a handful of students still trickling in at the back of the auditorium, a school administrator took the stage to make announcements by microphone – “senior surveys are due soon, and please RSVP for the upcoming graduation ceremonies; for everyone else, don’t forget register to secure your spot in next year’s classes.” The Precipice Saxophone Quartet was recognized for its upcoming appearance on “From the Top,” a nationally syndicated radio program that features the performances from the nation’s top young classical musicians. Students put their hands together to celebrate this notable accomplishment, and then yet another – one of their peers had also just received a prestigious young artist award from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.
As the announcements drew to a close, everyone shifted expectantly in the auditorium. “And now, please give a warm welcome to Mr. Raimi!” CSO violist Max Raimi and several of his colleagues took the stage to get to the real business of the noon hour at Merit – the weekly “Live From Gottlieb” concert series, which invites professional musicians to ply their craft in front of this eager and ambitious student audience.
Raimi is no stranger to Merit; his first “Live From Gottlieb” performance took place in October. By now, students had had a chance to hear him perform as a part of duos and trios, and had experienced his quick wit and generous pedagogy in the classroom. This afternoon, he was sharing some of his own creative work with students: his Quintet for Tenor Saxophone and Strings, composed in 2008.
The work was divided into three movements, Raimi told the students, the first movement entitled “Exhortation.” “Does anyone know what ‘exhortation’ means?” A restless silence filled the warm auditorium. “Good thing I’m going through this!” Raimi said, laughing, and bringing the students through musical examples for each movement.
“Exhortation,” he said, was inspired by the challenges of balancing writing for strings against the strident tones of the saxophone – “so different it’s hard to think of them as a group.” Maybe the saxophone could be encouraging the strings, goading them on, convincing them, Raimi explained. He was composing the work during the 2008 election season and wanted to capture the feeling of the persuasiveness and oratory power of Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama. “He was an incredible speaker, whatever you opinion you had of him,” Raimi told the students.
Raimi brought the audience through “Inebriation” and “Lamentation,” where students fared better with the vocabulary quiz. Giggles scattered through the hall at the invocation of Barney from “The Simpsons” (“Inebriation”), but a rapt silence fell as Raimi and his colleagues demonstrated the diverse elements that influenced the work’s final movement: a New Orleans jazz funeral standard – “The Sweet By-and-By” – and Jewish prayers from Raimi’s youth. The students listened with close attention until the final notes of the “Lamentation” faded away completely.
Then smiles broke out everywhere – from the grateful students, satisfied musicians and appreciative faculty members – and excited applause broke out across the hall. Class was over and the students dismissed, but each carried with them a piece of Max Raimi’s generosity.