For nearly a century, the Civic Orchestra of Chicago has prepared young musicians for careers in music. Founded in 1919 by the CSO’s second music director, Frederick Stock, the Civic Orchestra is an intensive training program that couples unique access to the extraordinary musical resources of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra with real-life experience as an emerging professional. Civic musicians are typically between the ages of 22 and 30, and are pursuing or have completed university or conservatory training as orchestral musicians. This year marks a milestone for Cliff Colnot, the Civic Orchestra’s principal conductor, who is celebrating his 20th anniversary with the ensemble.

What was your first experience with the Civic Orchestra?

The first time I worked with the Civic Orchestra, I was brought in to help rehearse works by Pierre Boulez and Elliott Carter — “cleaning up” the rhythms, balances and correcting pitches — to prepare the players for a guest conductor. This type of work in the beginning was very per-job basis. As I became more active as a conductor for CSO-sponsored new music concerts [the precursor to MusicNOW], my responsibilities gradually expanded to include more regular association with the Civic Orchestra, ultimately leading to my current position as principal conductor.

What’s the most rewarding about 
this work?

For me, the most
 gratifying aspect 
is having a tiny 
influence in the 
maturation of 
the Civic musi
cians in ways
 that will serve 
the players well 
in the future, whatever career path they choose. Of course, I like to help shape their music
 to have a beautiful phrase, to achieve excellent intonation and ensemble, and to communicate a story to the audience. But perhaps more gratifying is contributing to their development as soulful, curious, imaginative and entrepreneurial musicians.

Civic musicians spend
 two years in the orchestra and then head into the professional world. What do you wish them to take away?

As musicians leave after two years in Civic, I hope that
 they will be role models for all the fundamentals of effective orchestral playing that they learn while they’re here. Also, 
I wish them to have more confidence in their abilities 
to fit into any musical group; 
to listen, match, give way to 
the greater good in the music, and suppress their own egos. Beyond this, I am very hopeful that their experience in Civic will produce an enthusiasm 
for becoming creatively active in their larger community — seeing and experiencing the big picture and the profound responsibilities that come with it.

For a Civic concert on Jan. 21, you’ve arranged a collection of major orchestral excerpts called “Rite of Passage” for winds, brass and percussion. What was that process like?

From a purely musical and orchestration point of view, creating “Rite of Passage” was challenging in terms of crafting transitions between various excerpts, and perhaps more importantly, what to do with the string parts so that the arrangement would take on a fresh character and personality, but still retain the spirit and integrity of the original work. I got great enjoyment from problem solving these challenges, like deconstructing a large puzzle and then reconstructing it into something else.

The Civic Orchestra is part of the Institute for Learning, Access and Training. To learn more about the Civic, the free concerts it presents and the other ways that it promotes Citizen Musicianship, please visit In addition, Cliff Colnot will conduct this season’s final MusicNOW concert, on May 5 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph.