Conductor Edwin Outwater has earned international attention for his innovative cross-disciplinary ventures and adventurous new-music explorations. Because he does not have an ongoing post in Chicago and most of his engagements take him elsewhere, many probably don’t realize that he has been a resident of the Windy City for about eight years.
Area audiences will have a chance to see him action in his hometown at 11 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. March 17 when he joins the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for two family concerts that feature just the type of collaboration he loves: bringing music to children.
He appreciates the orchestra’s “go big” approach to its family offerings. “It’s one of the most collaborative facets of what they they do,” said Outwater, 46, who has appeared regularly with the CSO since 2004. “They really put a lot of resources and energy and creativity into their family concerts.”
For the March 17 program, titled “Let’s Explore!” Outwater has teamed with Emily Graslie, chief curiosity correspondent for Chicago’s Field Museum. She is the writer, producer, co-creator and host of “The Brain Scoop,” an educational YouTube channel that offers behind-the-scenes looks at the renowned natural-history museum’s vast holdings.
“I think it’s very special in Chicago how these large institutions — the ballet, opera and museums — all kind of inter-connect and work together,” he said. “It’s kind of unique in a large city to the extent that it happens here.”
Outwater and Graslie, who will co-host the concerts, have been working for a year to create what the conductor calls a “thoughtful and mind-expanding” program that examines similarities between an orchestra and an ecosystem and other parallels between the musical and natural worlds.
The program features excerpts from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5, which will demonstrate how compositions are constructed from dozens of musical motifs just as a living organism is made up of thousands of individual cells.
Another selection is The Mestizo Waltz from Three Latin-American Dances by Gabriela Lena Frank, a member of the famed Silk Road Ensemble. The daughter of a Peruvian/Chinese mother and a Lithuanian/Jewish father, Frank has become something of a cultural anthropologist. Much like a biologist or other scientist doing field research, she has traveled to countries like Peru and Ecuador and collected samples of folk music.
Also on the program are The Moldau from Má vlast, Smetana’s evocative portrayal of the Bohemian river, and Desert Transport by Mason Bates, a former CSO composer-in-residence.
This family program mimics the kind of cross-disciplinary collaborations that Outwater undertook as music director of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony in Ontario, Canada, putting that regional ensemble on the map internationally. His Intersections series linked orchestral music to such disciplines as quantum physics, literature, film, food and yoga and featured such guest artists as cellist Johannes Moser and Inuit throat-singer Tanya Tagaq. Sections of the program, “Beethoven and Your Brain,” created with neuroscientist and author Daniel J. Levitin, were recently performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., as part of its “Sound Health” program with soprano Renée Fleming and the National Institutes of Health.
“For me, collaboration was just something I felt very natural about,” he said. “What I discovered after doing it kind of instinctively is that it really does re-energize and reframe a lot of the older music in a way that I never expected. It also calls on different skills of the musicians to play in different ways, which is generally healthy for orchestras as well.”
Along with collaborations, Outwater made a point of reaching out to the community, taking the orchestra, or smaller ensembles drawn from it, everywhere from schools to corporate offices and assisted-living facilities. At the same time, he led world premieres by a range of composers, including Nicole Lizée, Nico Muhly, Owen Pallett and Richard Reed Parry.
Outwater believes an orchestra’s primary mission is to perform at the highest possible level and cultivate and preserve the classical-music tradition. But at the same time, he sees such an ensemble as an “army of artists,” a flexible entity that can be deployed in all kinds of imaginative and exciting ways. “If I had a hundred musicians, what could I do with them?” he said. “How could they inspire people? Anything gets stale if you just keep repeating it without thinking about it. Sometimes, just for the artists alone, just looking at music through different lenses can be enlightening and inspiring — and for audiences as well.”
In addition to his frequent guest-conducting dates, Outwater has brought many of these same ideas to the Eastern Sierra Symphony, a music festival in Mammoth Lakes, Calif., where he serves as artistic director, and the San Francisco Symphony, where he has held such positions as director of summer concerts (2014-17) and resident conductor (2001-06).
Outwater isn’t sure of what is next for him in his career. One possibility might be serving as music director of an adventuresome larger orchestra interested in the experimental initiatives he tested at the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony.
“I think there may be some things down the pike along those lines,” he said. “But I’m finding that even going as a guest to other orchestras and bringing more offbeat and collaborative stuff to them is equally satisfying, because you are kind of spreading the word not to just one orchestra but to many.”