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Bach, Beethoven behind bars

By Michael Tarm in Chicago | China Daily | Updated: 2013-04-16 09:43

Bach, Beethoven behind bars

Chicago Symphony Orchestra bass player Dan Armstrong (right) talks to an unidentified inmate during their music performance for inmates on Sunday as part of the CSO's Citizen Musician program, which brings music to a variety of locations, including prisons. Todd Rosenberg / Associated Press

Inmates perform with orchestra as part of music outreach program

Strains of classical music echoed not inside a concert hall, but in a bleak Chicago jail where teenage boys await trial on charges ranging from drug dealing to murder.

The concert was part of a unique outreach program that is the brainchild of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's musical director, the Italian-born Riccardo Muti, who attended the event at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center.

Six of the orchestra's members took part in the concert, but taking center stage were some 10 inmates who had participated in a week-long music workshop. It culminated in the concert on Sunday featuring compositions the inmates wrote in collaboration with the professionals.

"This is a wonderful beginning for you and for us," Muti, 71, told the group after the 45-minute performance ended. "You will join society with the sense of harmony you learned here."

Bach, Beethoven behind bars

One composition began with a double bass playing a Bach cello suite. It changed direction jarringly a minute later as the teen inmates joined in, rapping. One sang about his legal plight: "I hope the judge says I served my time ... I'm praying God gets me out of this jam."

Some of the boys' parents sat in the audience, several with tears in their eyes.

When one of the organizers announced the inmates and their families will receive CD recordings of the concert, one mother buried her head in her hands.

"Oh my God, this is so special," she said aloud.

The goal of the outreach program, which has included visits to other jails, is to impart a wider appreciation for music and to inspire at-risk youth. It seemed to work for at least some of the teens.

"I learned more about classical music," a teen named Ricky told reporters after the concert. He was identified only by his first name because he is a juvenile charged with a crime. "I'd heard of Beethoven and Bach. I liked it."

Some of the teens taking part showed less outward enthusiasm as they performed.

But love or hate the music, the experience had to have been a welcome change of pace from the tedium and anxiety of a regimented existence inside the institution.

The center's 2012 annual report noted that, almost daily, someone either talks about killing himself or tries. The center holds around 250 inmates, a few of whom are not yet teens.

Muti, who was born in Naples, has taken his act to prison before.

He once performed Robert Schumann's Warum? - "why?" in German - in a Milan prison. The work, he explained later, was his way of asking inmates what had brought them to such misfortune.

Muti spoke philosophically to the detainees in Chicago after the concert, just before a dozen burly guards escorted the inmates-turned-musicians back to their holding cells.

"We will meet again in the future," he said. He quickly added, "Not here! But on the outside."

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