Although the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2013/14 subscription season concluded June 21, it doesn’t mean that the ensemble’s musicians just take the rest of the summer off. Far from it. After a trio of concerts June 26-28 at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, the orchestra had a short break before undertaking its annual summer residency at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park from July 8 through Aug. 17.
And if those obligations weren’t enough, some of the symphony’s members squeeze in time to perform, teach or both at summer music events across the United States and abroad, including the Aspen (Colo.) Music Festival and School; Grand Teton Music Festival in Jackson Hole, Wyo., Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, Calif., and Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, Japan. The players have to carefully schedule around their summer CSO obligations and in some cases, take unpaid leaves of absence. “We have to coordinate everything with our main job, which is the CSO,” said CSO Principal Oboe Eugene Izotov. “That’s why when I choose to do something, I choose the things that I believe in.”
Before joining the Chicago Symphony last year, Principal Timpanist David Herbert had his summers off and was able to spend eight weeks teaching and performing at the Aspen Music Festival — something he did for five years. Because of his obligation to play this summer at Ravinia, however, he was forced to drop Aspen, because he wanted to either go for the full length of the Colorado festival or not at all. Instead, from July 21 through Aug. 4, he will participate in the Pacific Music Festival, which was founded in 1990 by famed conductor Leonard Bernstein. Principal players from leading orchestras in the United States and Europe mentor leading music students from around the world. “They have great conductors,” Herbert said. “They’re very well organized and the other faculty members are some of the top players. It’s great company to be in. It’s quite an honor to be there. The workload is a lot. They keep you very busy, which I like.”
Also taking part in the Pacific Music Festival is Izotov. He will return for his 10th year, spending eight days there at the end of July. He always dreads the “ridiculously long” flight to Japan, but his time at the event always makes the draining voyage worth it. “I continue to come back to the Pacific Music Festival because I just think it is a meaningful place and useful for the students,” he said. “I have formed wonderful friendships with the people who have been coming there. There just seems to be the right spirit.”
Izotov is not alone in his devotion to a summer school or festival. Charles Pikler, who joined the CSO in 1978 and was named principal violist in 1986, has performed at the Grand Teton Music Festival since 2000, and CSO trombonist Michael Mulcahy has participated for more than 20 years. The event features an orchestra composed of top professional musicians from such cities as Atlanta, New York, Houston and San Francisco, with noted conductor Donald Runnicles at the helm. “He’s a very good conductor,” Pikler said, “and he does some very interesting programs. I’ve gotten along with him very well, and I’ve enjoyed playing for him.” This year, Pikler will be in Jackson Hole for the first two weeks of the festival, which runs July 3 through Aug. 14.
Even more of a regular is CSO bassoonist Dennis Michel, who has taught for 26 years at the Music Academy of the West. This year, he has two stints at the school — from June 15 to July 13 and another week in early August. “It’s an opportunity to work with the most talented, most motivated and most interested students out there,” said Michel, who also heads the woodwind department at Roosevelt University. In addition to playing orchestral and chamber music, the young participants have individual lessons and a two-hour master class each week that is open to the public.
Other CSO musicians who have appeared at the Music Academy this summer include Izotov, who taught here for eight days beginning June 29, and Principal Trombone Jay Friedman, who conducted his brass arrangement of Richard Strauss’ An Alpine Symphony as part of the opening Academy Festival Orchestra concert on June 21.
Though Herbert had to bypass it this year, two CSO musicians are at the Aspen Music Festival this summer. Robert Chen, the CSO’s concertmaster, spent two weeks there, where he is serving in the same capacity first with the Aspen Festival Orchestra and then the Aspen Chamber Symphony. The two ensembles are primarily composed of students, but professionals fill some of the key principal positions and serve as side-by-side mentors. CSO Principal Percussion Cynthia Yeh is returning to Aspen for the first time since was a student there in 1997, and, indeed, nostalgia was one of the reasons she decided to accept the festival’s invitation to take part. She is performing in the Aspen Festival Orchestra and taught for a week beginning June 26.
If all that wasn’t enough, Chen and Yeh, along with CSO Principal Clarinet Stephen Williamson, are spending a week coaching the National Youth Orchestra before it launches a national tour on July 16 that includes a stop July 28 at the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago. Led this year by conductor David Robertson, the ensemble consists of 120 top-tier students from across the country chosen through auditions. “The kids are amazing,” Yeh said.
High on the list of reasons for taking part in these extracurricular musical activities is the desire to teach and help younger musicians in the same way that the Chicago musicians were guided by older, more experienced musicians when they were coming up. “When you come out of music school, you know about half of what you need to know to sustain a career,” Michel said. “So to have something where you’re exposed to some of the best students out there is really a worthwhile opportunity to pass along the stuff you’ve picked up on to the next generation.”
Yeh does not teach throughout the main Chicago Symphony season, so the summer provides her only opportunity to work with aspiring musicians. “The whole summer festival as a student for me was something you looked forward to, and you learned a lot from,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to book every single week of my vacation teaching, but bits of it re-energizes you.”
At the same time, it can be rewarding to meet and perform with fellow professional musicians outside the Chicago Symphony and get some sense of what is happening in the larger classical world. “It’s like a reset to play with other people,” Yeh said. “It’s basically like a reset to be able do things that you still love doing but in a different setting with different people and you play a different role in it. It’s refreshing.”
Such experiences, Chen said, put the players outside their comfort zone. “It’s always nice to step outside of that,” he said, “and meet other musicians and work with other musicians and get a different perspective on playing. It’s very healthy, because when you come back, you bring something from that experience. Also, I bring something of my experience with the CSO to these other surroundings. It’s sort of an exchange.”
One motivation that does not figure in the musicians’ summer plans is bolstering their bank accounts. “I know for sure that it’s never about the money, because everyone takes a pay cut,” Yeh said.
While all these summer schools and festivals keep the visiting musicians busy, they acknowledge that they do find time for fun. “In Aspen, I’m not planning on teaching and rehearsing every hour that I’m there,” Yeh said. “I’m going to be hiking. Hiking is kind of a priority up there.”
Chen is making his time in the mountain town a family affair. “It’s a beautiful spot in the country,” he said. “My wife and I have two young kids, and it’s a nice place for them to spend a couple of weeks in the summer, so we all go.”
Izotov will take some time totally away from music at the end of August. “I think if I don’t take that time off,” he said, “that after the kind of lifestyle I have and all the traveling and playing that I do, I think my wife will have a very serious conversation with me. It’s important to have time to recharge.”
But like many of the other musicians, Chen is not sure if he will have any down time at all this summer. “I haven’t thought about that,” he said. “It’s kind of a funny analogy, but it’s like sharks. If you stop swimming, you die.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic for the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts writer.
PHOTO: The outdoor theater at the Aspen (Colo.) Music Festival, which features participation by several CSO players this summer.