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 20 and 30, and are pursuing or have completed university or music conservatory training.

The Civic Orchestra has seen many conductors since Stock took the podium in 1919, including Sir Georg Solti, Daniel Barenboim and current CSO Zell Music Director Riccardo Muti. Since 2005, Cliff Colnot has held the position of principal conductor, though his career with the Civic Orchestra began in 1994 at the invitation of Barenboim. After leading the orchestra for over 20 years, Colnot will be concluding his tenure as principal conductor at the end of the 2015–16 season.

Colnot’s career is that of a distinguished conductor and musician. One of a few musicians to have studied orchestral repertoire with Daniel Barenboim, Colnot has served as assistant conductor for Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Workshops for young musicians from Israel, Egypt, Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. Colnot has worked extensively with Pierre Boulez, the CSO’s Helen Regenstein Conductor Emeritus, and he regularly collaborates with the acclaimed contemporary music ensemble eighth blackbird. In addition, he has been principal conductor of the CSO’s MusicNOW series since its inception. Over his 20 years with the Civic, he has led the orchestra through many musical and personal accomplishments.

Cliff Colnot is greeted by Civic Orchestra members backstage after a performance. | Photo: Brian Kersey for the CSO

Cliff Colnot, the Civic’s principal conductor, is greeted by Civic Orchestra members backstage after a performance. | Photo: Brian Kersey for the CSO

Colnot’s role with Civic began as preparatory conductor. “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.”

Civic has been under the baton of Colnot for dozens upon dozens of programs, spanning a wide range of the orchestral canon along the way. For Colnot, “exposure to the core canon is important.”

Through each concert cycle, Civic musicians receive an in-depth exploration of the music, which is central to Colnot’s philosophy. “We work phrase by phrase on the details, and this takes time, because the players need to be proud of the result. Some would say: ‘Play as much as possible.’ I say: ‘Do less music at a higher level.’ ”

In addition to his work as a conductor, Colnot is a celebrated arranger and composer. He has been commissioned to write works for the CSO Percussion Scholarship Group, and his orchestration of Duke Ellington’s New World Coming was premiered by the CSO with Barenboim as piano soloist in 2000. He also has produced arrangements of standard orchestral repertoire for Civic chamber ensembles. Recently, Colnot arranged Stravinsky’s The Firebird for a sextet as part of the Civic’s Music in the Schools project last June. He also arranged selections from Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet for a 10-piece Civic ensemble that will be traveling to schools participating in the CSO-Connect program in February.

Colnot’s skills as an arranger have helped the musicians of the Civic Orchestra to reach a broader audience than what they would in Orchestra Hall, giving the young professional musicians a chance to explore what additional opportunities they can seek as part of their careers. Colnot has dedicated much of his career to the musicians of the Civic Orchestra, and he has affected the professional and personal development of these musicians. Reflecting on his time with the musicians, Colnot shares the most gratifying aspect of working with them:

For me, it’s having a tiny influence in the maturation of the Civic musicians 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.

He also wishes to pass on the following wisdom to the musicians:

As musicians leave, after 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 the 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.

Though Colnot is concluding his role with the Civic, he will continue to serve as the principal conductor of MusicNOW. The musicians of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and the CSOA family thank Cliff Colnot for his extraordinary leadership of the orchestra, and look forward to celebrating his final concert as principal conductor in February.

The program for Cliff Colnot’s final concert Feb. 29 as the Civic’s principal conductor will feature Shostakovich’s Ninth Symphony and EOS (Goddess of Dawn), a piece by former CSO Composer-in-Residence Augusta Read Thomas. Tickets are free with a small handling fee and may be purchased online or at the box office. In addition, Colnot will conduct two MusicNOW programs on March 7 and May 9 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance. For more information about these programs, visit cso.org/musicnow.

TOP: Cliff Colnot leads the Civic Orchestra of Chicago in a recent performance. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2015