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Riccardo Muti and company find receptive audience at juvenile detention center

Cook County Juvenile Temporary DetentiCenter

Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center

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Updated: November 2, 2012 6:20AM

The youths incarcerated at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center on the West Side are not as cut off from the outside world as the inmates of the infamous old Audy Home were.

But it’s not every day that they spend two hours with a world-famous conductor, a pair of international opera singers and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Brass Quintet.

And that’s what 54 of them did Sunday afternoon in the chapel of their facility at Hamilton and Roosevelt.

When Riccardo Muti was announced as CSO music director-designate in 2008, he said he wanted to take music “everywhere,” to reach out to “all communities,” to go to people “not accustomed to the type of music that we make.”

He wanted, he said, “to take the orchestra to a prison.”

Whether he ever succeeds in bringing the full 100-plus CSO to a Johnny Cash-style concert for the imprisoned, as he starts his third season as CSO artistic leader he has again made it clear how serious he is about this mission.

Two years ago, Muti visited the Illinois State Youth Center for girls in west suburban Warrenville along with some members of the CSO Chorus, playing the piano for the residents, accompanying vocal selections and talking to the girls about their dreams.

Preparations for the visit Sunday involved recruiting the right singers and CSO musicians to connect with the overwhelmingly male, largely black and Latino youths, ages 10 to 17, awaiting adjudication for criminal charges, ranging from disorderly conduct to theft, rape, manslaughter and homicide.

Muti took them as seriously as any paying concert audience as he accompanied Eric Owens, the charismatic African-American bass who recently starred as Alberich the dwarf in the Metropolitan Opera’s internationally telecast “Ring” cycle, and golden-voiced Cuban-American tenor Raul Melo in arias by Verdi, Bellini, Mozart, Puccini and a song by Tosti.

The young people focused on these performances better and more quietly than many an audience at Orchestra Hall or on the CSO’s European tours. “We wish you good luck,” Muti told the assembly. “We think of your dreams.”

“You could feel their attention,” Muti said afterward. “I know these things after almost 50 years.”

The youths also attend the Chicago Public Schools-administered Nancy B. Jefferson Alternative High School on site, and so teachers and supervisors had a sense that they were ready for such a visit.

Owens, who flew in Sunday from San Francisco, where he opened Saturday night in Bellini’s “The Capulets and the Montagues” at San Francisco Opera, said afterward, “I had to be here. This is the most important work I can do.”

Melo, who flew in Sunday from Charlotte, N.C., where he is in rehearsals for Puccini’s “Tosca” with Opera Carolina, said, “This is a real honor.”

When CSO trumpeters Christopher Martin and Tage Larsen, horn David Griffin, trombone Michael Mulcahy and tuba Gene Pokorny followed Muti, Owens and Melo with a brass arrangement of Aaron Copland’s music for Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” and Kerry Turner’s original “The Casbah at Tetouan,” the audience’s focus remained. But bodies started bobbing, legs started bopping and at least a few heads of dreads started shaking with the music.

“What do you want to know from us?” Muti asked.

“What inspired you to become musicians?” “How much does the tuba weigh?” “What’s the difference between how you play the trumpet and the trombone?” came the questions.

The post-CSO strike topical question did not go unasked: “How much y’all make? What kind of wages you pull down?”

Just before the youth were applauded as enthusiastically for their intense listening and questions, one girl turned to Muti and said with a big smile, “I know this man. He probably doesn’t remember me. But we met in Warrenville and went out of the lockup together. I know him.” Muti walked back over to her for a hearty handshake.

Then a young man’s voice came from one end of the space that had been transformed into a temporary recital hall.

“I don’t know what you all was playing or what you was saying. But you all did your thing. You really did your thing.”

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