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Lyric violist a musical new citizen

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Updated: August 30, 2013 6:25AM



They each stood as the name of their homelands were read aloud.

Argentina. Austria. Bangladesh. Belize. Bosnia-Herzegovina. Brazil. Bulgaria, Canada, Chile, China. Colombia. Croatia. Czech Republic . . . 53 nations in all.

When they got to the United Kingdom, Carol Cook, a native of Forres, in the Highlands of Scotland, stood.

In most regards, Cook was no different from the 144 other immigrants being sworn in as new American citizens last Monday in the third-floor auditorium of the federal building at 101 W. Congress Pkwy. Like many, she is younger, in her 30s. Like many, she came to this country for an education and decided to stay.

Though Cook was different in one important aspect: what she held in her hands. Many people, in their best suits, in dresses that looked hand-sewn, held something they had brought with them — bouquets of flowers, cameras. Some held babies, others the hands of children or other loved ones.

Cook held a sheet of music and her 1810 Samuel Gilkes viola, studying the notes and repeatedly running the fingers of her left hand over the frets of the instrument to keep them limber.

She is the principal violist at Lyric Opera of Chicago, where she has played for the past nine years. When immigration officials found that out, they asked if she would consider playing at her swearing-in ceremony; usually the music is a recording at the ceremonies, held about three times a week. Having performed at the Lyric, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with the London Symphony, the Australian Chamber Orchestra, in gilded concert halls around the world, she happily agreed to play for free to a group of strangers in a windowless room in a government office.

Cook picked up the violin at 3, won her first competition at 8, but at 16 shifted to the viola, and came to this country to go to school, first at Oberlin Conservatory, and then the Julliard School of Music. She decided to stay in the United States for a simple reason.

“I just loved it,” she said. “I loved the sense of optimism, the work ethic.”

Becoming a citizen certainly took work on her part. Our broken immigration system works no better for top professional musicians than for anyone else. Cook estimates the process took “the last 15 years.”

Her performance at the ceremony involved work as well. While “The Star-Spangled Banner” is notoriously difficult to sing, it is not easy to play either.

Nor was the anthem part of her repertoire. “I learned it specially for this,” she said. Just finding an arrangement for viola took some doing — she mentioned her upcoming gig to Max Raimi, a violist at the CSO, which Cook performs with at Ravinia in the summer. Raimi had written an arrangement for the national anthem performed by three violas that the CSO viola section has played prior to White Sox and Bulls games. He adapted that for Cook, and cut no corners for her, but gave her a version punctuated with difficult musical flourishes.

“Virtuosic,” she said. “He said I would have to work hard for my citizenship.”

And she did. She was introduced, climbed the steps to the podium. Those gathered stood, and Cook took a long breath, her bow poised over the strings, then began to play: swaying slightly, a look of concentration that almost seemed like pain on her face.

Violists are given a hard time — violinists get all the glamor, the fame, and have access to many more great works than violists do.

“Brahms, Tchaikovsky — that’s what we really lack,” she said before performing, comparing the viola to the violin, praising its “rich, much more mellow, smoky sound,” which in recent years has had better pieces written for it. “It’s a changed world for violists now.”

For new immigrants, the world is both changed and still the same, the latest chapter in a very old story.

“Throughout our history, the lasting contributions of immigrants have shaped our national identity, formed the ideal of the American dream and built upon the foundation of freedom and equality established by our founders,” Michelle Wong, an immigration officer at the Department of Homeland Security, told the room. “Millions of men and women just like you have come to the United States of American seeking freedom, liberty and the opportunity for a better life.”

Wong talked about the responsibilities of citizenship, but she also mentioned something that current citizens sometimes have a hard time wrapping their minds around.

“The bonds of citizenship are unrestricted,” she said. “Every citizen is an equal member of the American family.”

Later, Cook said that when she played, she thought about all that brought her here.“To be playing the national anthem — so much feeling behind it,” she said. “I was thinking of my whole journey as a musician, from starting as a kid to where it’s got me now, It’s quite emotional, to get to play that.”

Or to get to listen to it.



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