KLEO Community Family Life Center, in Chicago’s Washington Park neighborhood, is the last squat shopfront on a vacant stretch of Garfield Boulevard. It commemorates Kleo Barrett, a South Side resident who lost her life to domestic violence in 2007, and since its founding, the center has expanded its “safe haven” initiatives to include after-school tutoring and workforce programs. Her name sums up the center’s mission, written across its rainbow awning — K-L-E-O for “Keep Loving Each Other.”
On Thursday, Dec. 3, K-L-E-O hosts B-A-C-H: the center is one of the intriguing venues on the Civic Orchestra of Chicago’s all-day Bach Marathon that offers performances of all six Brandenburg concertos and The Art of Fugue at stops along the Chicago Transit Authority’s Green Line. The Civic’s Bach Marathon starts downtown, in mid-morning, then heads to points south during the afternoon, returning for an evening finale at the Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue (full schedule here). Civic’s musicians share Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 with KLEO’s after-school crowd, beginning at 4:30 p.m. All concerts are open to the public and free (the CTA isn’t, so load up your Ventra card; take the Green Line to Garfield).
Bringing Brandenburg No. 4 to Washington Park and Bach to Grand Boulevard, Kenwood, Woodlawn, South Shore and Englewood is a dream realized for Theaster Gates, the Chicago visual artist who’s won international plaudits for reviving cultural cast-offs on the city’s South Side. His marble “bonds” peddled at Art Basel 2013, etched on scrap trimmings from the abandoned Stony Island Trust & Savings Bank, funded the rechristening of the 82-year-old building as the Stony Island Arts Bank, a controlled-decay restoration packed full of vinyl records, discarded classroom visuals and long-forgotten libraries.
Gates has an unconventional partner in cellist Yo-Yo Ma, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Judson and Joyce Green Creative Consultant who’s made plenty of vinyl — and CDs, DVDs and Blu-rays — across his stellar solo career. Ma’s artistry has revitalized the works of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), and just about every composer since, with landmark performances that have taken the cellist seemingly everywhere in the world. Except Garfield Boulevard, which is where he landed recently for a Bach Marathon planning workshop with Gates, Civic Orchestra musicians and South Side community groups like KLEO.
‘Let’s go give it to ’em!’
Even at a Washington Park workshop distant from Symphony Center rehearsals, with Civic musicians in jeans and yoga pants waiting for Gates and Ma, there’s a drift toward familiar rituals. Everyone’s crowded into a rectangular room, but the seats are in semicircular rows, like an orchestra. Violinists seem to sit on the left, flutists’ backpacks are scattered in the middle, some cellists together on the right and a bass “Tuff Bag” resting by the far wall. Gates and Ma, who are set up front and center, are readying to rip and trip up the players’ usual sense of order. Right before they enter, the visual artist turns to the cellist: “Let’s go give it to ‘em!”
Gates cuts straight to the difficult point, hitting a serious topic in a friendly demeanor that simultaneously raises and reduces tensions: “You know, Yo, there’s this misnomer that certain kinds of music need to live in certain places; that classical music — white music — doesn’t have a place in black neighborhoods. A white person playing classical music in a black neighborhood is an unagencied event, and I think it’s really important to talk about this.”
The mention of “unagencied” events introduces a change of discourse that the workshop participants attempts to grasp and apply. There’s talk of “interruption,” “disruption” and “hacking” all afternoon.
The cellist filters these terms through his own vision and shares it with the Civic players: “You actually are doing something that society doesn’t encourage us to do very often, which is that you are actually opening yourself to be vulnerable. Because the ultimate in being open is showing love.” The audience is curiously embarrassed. Gauging the mood, Ma tries to start again and says, “That’s the greatest thing we can achieve in performing — to actually communicate love. … The vulnerability becomes your strength. That’s hacking into the system in a big, huge way.”
Gates interrupts with his own music — an improvised scat on the beautiful “Flower Duet” from the French opera Lakmé. Ma sways along like he’s playing the cello and everyone gradually realizes it’s OK to laugh. For Gates, “The Flower Duet” is more than a song for soprano and mezzo. It reflects “the kind of intimacy and closeness that happens when you take the possibility of harmony and then you force it to do something dynamic. Those intervals grow and shrink, but there’s always this sexy harmonic.”
The artist keeps riffing on Lakmé as his cellist friend smiles. “It feels like two sisters who know each other so well that they can lose and catch each other.” Gates is inspired. “They can say something discordant and the other one understands. The relationships that I love most have had that kind of dynamism, like, ‘Where are you going with this, bro?’ and then the possibility of ‘No matter where you go, I will be in sync with you.’”
‘Break that barrier down’
Marlo Kemp heads KLEO’s board of directors, and like the Civic musicians, he’s just heard Gates and Ma’s shared hopes. It’s no surprise he talks about KLEO’s after-school initiatives using more of the terminology prevalent this afternoon. “When they say ‘safe space,’ they mean a space where you can, at least for a moment, take your mind off of the issues that brought you here.” It’s Kemp’s definition. “Here’s a space where you’re protected. A space where you’re valued. A space where we attempt to address at least part of the needs of the human spirit. And it’s a space where you’re safe to be you.”
Kemp recognizes that, just as Brandenburg No. 4 on Garfield Boulevard removes Civic musicians from their comfort zone, a Bach disruption on home turf might rattle KLEO, too. “The folks that come to KLEO — a lot of them have socio-economic issues, and that tends to build up a great deal of guard and skepticism about change and that things are going to get better,” he says. “You have two groups of people — the audience and the musicians — who really don’t know each other. This is a very good time to break that barrier down.”
When the big workshop breaks into smaller sessions, and Kemp meets the Civic musicians bringing Brandenburg No. 4 to KLEO, he spots a kindred spirit in violinist Elizabeth Ehrlich. She hesitantly suggests that the KLEO performance begin with a lighthearted “skit,” and the idea triggers a serious discussion among the musicians about the whole program’s intent. Another violinist shares a different, firmly worded opinion: “This is a Bach Marathon.”
Later, Ehrlich reflects on the exchange, perhaps a product of her willingness to open up, subtly disrupt and risk vulnerability. She’s a veteran of outreach programs from her student days at the Eastman School of Music, in Rochester, N.Y., and appreciates their challenges and opportunities.
“It’s hard to be human in front of a big group of people that you don’t know, and so being vulnerable means doing things out of your comfort zone.” She’s speaking about the upcoming KLEO visit, but there’s an echo of her earlier, tentative initiative. “It means showing a part of your heart and a part of your humanity that maybe people don’t see all the time — and doing that in front of an audience is really, really difficult. You have to be OK with looking silly and sounding silly or maybe even making mistakes in front of people, but it’s what draws people in and makes classical music so worth it.
“A skit would be more engaging and it would describe why we love what we do, how it’s easy for other people to love what we do and why we love the actual music that we are about to play.”
‘You are embraced’
Violinist Ehrlich reflects the shifting dialogue as the workshop finishes: a turn from the language of agency, hacking and disruption toward a discussion of heart, humanity and vulnerability. There’s a similar shift in the hierarchy and who’s running the show. When the orchestra reassembles for its late-afternoon wrap-up, the musicians are sharing their progress front and center while Ma attentively listens, leaning against a post in the back of the room. Eventually the celebrated cellist offers the aspiring violinist and her Civic Orchestra colleagues some last reflections on what music means to him, and what it might mean to Chicago’s Bach Marathon communities. “For some people, it’s the joy — the hope,” he says. “For some people the need is to feel safe — to feel like you are embraced.”
It’s the message written all along on KLEO’s rainbow awning: “Keep Loving Each Other.”
Andrew Huckman is a Chicago-based lawyer and writer.
TOP: Yo-Yo Ma and Theaster Gates discuss plans for the Civic Orchestra’s upcoming Bach Marathon. | Photo: Joel Wintermantle