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Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra set to perform ‘Space Odyssey’

The Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestrwill present concert music from “2001: A Space Odyssey”May 19 June 16.

The Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra will present a concert of music from “2001: A Space Odyssey”on May 19 and June 16.

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Music from “2001: A Space Odyssey,”
Chicago Youth Symphony

♦ 7:30 p.m. May 19

♦ Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan

♦ Tickets, $20-$50

♦ 6:30 p.m. June 16

♦ Jay Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph

♦ Free

♦ (312) 939-2207, ext. 31;

Updated: May 20, 2013 7:55PM

Mention a youth orchestra concert, and what likely comes to mind is a nice, safe program of easy-listening favorites by Mozart or Gershwin. But the truth, at least, when it comes to the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra, is often exactly the opposite.

Sure, the ensemble of 121 top young musicians plays the standards by Tchaikovsky and Beethoven, but music director Allen Tinkham likes to mix in lesser-known works past and present as a way to challenge his aspiring players and expand their notions about what music can be.

In that spirit, the youth symphony’s May 19 program (which will be repeated June 16 in Millennium Park) centers on the music from director Stanley Kubrick’s celebrated 1968 film, “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

The late Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert included the sci-fi classic on his list of the 10 greatest movies of all time, touting the critical role of the music, which consists not of a score written expressly for the movie but of pre-existing classical masterworks.

“The classical music chosen by Kubrick exists outside the action,” Ebert wrote in 1997. “It uplifts. It wants to be sublime; it brings a seriousness and transcendence to the visuals.”

Almost everyone knows the movie’s famed revelatory opening music, the first 30 seconds or so from Richard Strauss’ expansive tone poem — “Also sprach Zarathustra.” The program will include not only that tiny segment but also the entire work and two other pieces from the film — Aram Khachaturian’s “Gayane’s Adagio” and Gyorgy Ligeti’s “Atmospheres.” The latter consists of dense, subtlely changing clusters of sound. The groundbreaking, and in many ways still radical, 1961 work remains a rarity even on professional orchestra programs.

The two works by Strauss by Ligeti would be challenging for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, let alone a youth ensemble, but the conductor was undeterred. He pointed out the some of the players had already nailed down their parts before rehearsals even began.

The goal of the youth symphony, Tinkham said, is not just to teach budding musicians how to play in an ensemble and help them improve on their instruments.

“It’s also to expand their minds and to introduce them to a lot of music that high-school students wouldn’t discover a lot of other ways,” he said. “Ligeti’s ‘Atomsphères’ is probably not playing on the radio. So, unless you’re going to see ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ you have no idea this piece even exists.”

The idea for a “2001”-themed program sprang from the work the winner of the orchestra’s 2012 concerto competition — principal second violinist Claire Bourg — selected as her solo vehicle: Khachaturian’s Violin Concerto in D minor. That choice led Tinkham to begin thinking about the Armenian composer and his Adagio as well as the rest of the music featured in “2001.”

Bourg is one of 430 musicians ages 7-18 from the Chicago metropolitan area and as far away as Champaign, Ill., and Goshen, Ind., who take part each year in the five core ensembles of the 67-year-old Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras, as the larger organization is known.

The senior at Metea Valley High School in Aurora joined the program six years ago, first performing in the intermediate-level Debut Orchestra and then moving up to the Concert Orchestra and finally the top-level Symphony Orchestra.

“Before that, I wasn’t aware how much talent there is in the Chicago area and the world overall,” Bourg said. “And being with so many great musicians is what really helped me start practicing and have a passion for music.”

About 75 percent of youth symphony members go on to major in music in college. Bourg has been accepted to the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music and ultimately hopes to play in a professional orchestra.

A similar path was followed by Oto Carrillo, who plays French horn in the Chicago Symphony. Although he was in the youth symphony for just one year in 1988-89, it was transformative time that led to his decision to make music his life.

Beyond the musical training it provides, the youth symphony serves as “great microcosm of society,” Tinkham said, teaching students how function within a diverse group and what it takes to both lead and follow.

“Orchestra,” he said, “combines all the fantastic team-building exercises of any athletic team with the mental dexterity required to process this kind of repertoire — Ligeti, Khachaturian and Strauss — with the physical discipline of keeping these little, tiny muscles in perfect shape. It’s all encompassing.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local free-lance writer.

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