When he began as music director in 2010, Riccardo Muti made it his mission to expand and deepen the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s presence in Chicago and across the world. Five seasons later, under Muti’s leadership and through the efforts of the CSO’s Negaunee Music Institute, the Chicago Symphony has offered free, full orchestra concerts to thousands of people in community venues such as Millennium Park, the Apostolic Church of God and Chodl Auditorium in Morton East High School in Cicero.

The number of free CSO open rehearsals has doubled with the addition of a series of “Community Open Rehearsals,” coordinated by the League of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, that bring over 2,500 seniors and veterans to Symphony Center each season to observe how the CSO and its music director prepare for a concert. While on tour, musicians of the CSO pair performances in the great concert halls of the world with Citizen Musician activities that bring chamber music and master classes into school, hospital, university and social-service organization settings.

Bass-baritone Eric Owens sings arias during a performance at the Illinois Youth Center in Chicago. | Todd Rosenberg Photography

Bass-baritone Eric Owens sings arias during a performance at the Illinois Youth Center in Chicago. | Todd Rosenberg Photography

Perhaps Muti’s most signature undertaking, however, has been an initiative that shares music with people who, in some ways, are farthest away from the red carpets and illuminated rosettes of Orchestra Hall. Each season since 2010, Muti has visited a Chicago-area youth prison or detention center to present  an interactive recital for incarcerated youth.

Maestro Muti’s prison visits have inspired a portfolio of musical projects that are developed and implemented by the Negaunee Music Institute in partnership with specialists in the field. Since launching these special performances, Muti has visited the Illinois Youth Center in Warrenville, a facility that houses teenage females; the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center on Chicago’s West Side, a facility that holds pre-adjudicated teenage males and females, and the Illinois Youth Center in Chicago, a facility for teen males. In each case the maestro brings with him special guests, including singers and CSO musicians.

The 2014/15 visit took place on Sept. 28. New to the CSO as a partner, IYCC houses 65 teen males aged 10-18 who are in the custody of the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice. As they anticipate completion of court-ordered sentences and a return to their communities, the young men participate in enrichment activities aimed at providing them with skills and assets that will serve as resources post-incarceration.

The September visit was particularly special because it brought together two singers from the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Opera Center at Lyric Opera of Chicago, soprano Tracy Cantin and mezzo-soprano Julie Miller; tenor Antonio Poli, and bass-baritone Eric Owens, as well as a brass quintet of CSO musicians: Mark Ridenour and Tage Larsen, trumpets; David Griffin, horn; Michael Mulcahy, trombone, and Gene Pokorny, principal tuba.

During a concert at the Illinois Youth Center, CSO brass players offer selections from "Porgy and Bess." | Todd Rosenberg Photography

During a concert at the Illinois Youth Center in Chicago, CSO brass players offer selections from the opera Porgy and Bess. | Todd Rosenberg Photography

Over 75 minutes, Muti led the audience of 65 young people and 25 invited guests on a tour of arias from Verdi operas, with a finale of selections from the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, performed by the brass quintet. Before each aria, Muti explained the text and its context within the opera. When the aria was finished, he asked them: “What did you think?” “It’s OK if you didn’t like it. If not, tell me why.” “What’s your favorite part?”

Hands shot up across the room. “I liked the mezzo-soprano,” said one of the audience members seated with the youngest group of residents. “She was dramatic and committed.”

“I like the piano part the best,” said another.

“Good answer,” said Muti, who led the recital from the piano.

After the brass quintet finished, the musicians fielded additional questions from the audience, which sparked an impromptu rap performance by four of the youth. The evening concluded with a reception that provided time for the youth to speak one one one with the performers.

Making music for incarcerated youth is one of the many ways in which the CSO and its artistic leadership have expanded the institution’s offerings and extended its activities to engage an increasingly diverse audience. The enthusiastic and inquisitive response from the IYCC youth demonstrates both the need for and the purpose of sharing classical music with the broadest possible audience. As one of the city’s foremost cultural ambassadors, the CSO believes in using the power of music to forge meaningful connections between communities.

To learn more, visit cso.org/Institute/CommunityPartnerships.

Jonathan McCormick is associate director of Institute programs at the CSO’s Negaunee Music Institute.

TOP: Riccardo Muti, music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, works with a teen during a recital at the Illinois Youth Center in Chicago. | Todd Rosenberg Photography