Striking CSO musicians play free concert in Woodlawn

The musicians of the striking Chicago Symphony Orchestra, led by Jay Friedman, perform at the Apostolic Church of God in Woodlawn. (Contributed photo)

By M.L. RANTALA
Music critic

Since the strike began, members of the CSO have been offering free concerts throughout the city, and they traveled to the South Side on March 12 to give a free concert at the Apostolic Church of God, 6320 S. Dorchester Ave., in Woodlawn.

The musicians were in fine form. They opened with Rossini’s Overture to “The Barber of Seville.” It was conducted by CSO trombonist Jay Friedman, who is also an experienced conductor. (He was named Conductor of the Year by the Illinois Council of Orchestras in 2002.) The overture had bounce and gaiety, was well-paced, and it captured all the delightful hints of fun and frolic you expect from Rossini.

CSO concertmaster Robert Chen was the soloist for Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, and he conducted from the soloist’s spot. He played from memory, in the beginning performing the first violin part along with his cohorts, only dropping out of the first violin lines as his solo entrance approached.

Chen is a captivating player with lovely tone and gracefully shaped lines. He was well supported by the orchestra. The sound was bright and warm, the orchestral balance was superb, and the dynamics bracing.

After an intermission, the concert concluded with the Symphony No. 4 by Brahms with Friedman again conducting. The sound was big and bold and well textured. The intensity was exciting and the drama well-rendered.

There was clear support for the musicians. The applause for the orchestra was warm, appreciative, and extensive. They stood for the orchestra, not only applauding but smiling in their support. There were pockets of people in the audience wearing multiple buttons that contained explicit support for the striking musicians. There were audience members who knew the issues and discussed their support for the musicians before the concert, during the intermission, and after the performance was over.

Yet it was impossible to ignore a certain awkwardness that pervaded the performance. This was the third time musicians from the CSO have performed at the Apostolic Church of God. I was there in October of 2016, when music director Riccardo Muti led the orchestra.

Muti knew he was venturing into territory different from Symphony Center. He knew that there would be a large number of people who don’t regularly attend symphony concerts. And so he was prepared, his wit at the ready, to put the audience at ease as he explained when musicians expected applause and when it might be distracting to them. He charmed the audience and helped them understand what the orchestra needed to perform at their best.

It is no slight to the CSO musicians to say that they lacked Muti’s unique and inspirational ability to speak to an audience. Yet what was strange was that the musicians pretty much abandoned any attempt to communicate with the audience beyond the music.

While the evening began with some brief spoken remarks, there were few that addressed the strike. Bassist Steve Lester told the audience that the strike was ongoing and that “we are Chicago’s orchestra. We belong to everyone.”

This was a great beginning, but it ended there. No one told the some 3,500 people in attendance how they could assist the orchestra in their struggle. Surely this was a huge opportunity missed.

Two cards were prepared for the concert. The first, about the size of a small menu, contained the program. A second card — much smaller, about the size of a postcard — contained the musicians’ reasons for the strike, included requests that audience members contact Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association leaders (board chair Helen Zell and CSOA president Jeff Alexander) in support of the musicians and included their email addresses and their CSOA phone numbers. It also included the website for the striking musicians as well as their email address.

Their demands boil down into two issues: they want salary compensation befitting a top international orchestra and they want to maintain their defined benefit retirement package.

Since the strike began, management has sweetened its original offers. The current offer provides a yearly minimum salary of $178,152 in the final year of the new contract. It also maintains a move to a defined contribution retirement plan but includes an investment protection feature which management says will provide musicians security in their retirement.

The second, smaller card — the one which spoke to the strike — was not distributed as widely as the program card. I wasn’t given one and got my hands on one at the intermission when another patron gave me hers. After the concert I asked folks leaving if they had read the small card. About two-thirds of those I spoke to never saw it.

The musicians also had a large sign that had their website URL on it as well as how to follow the musicians on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. But that sign was hidden behind beautiful Easter flowers that filled the church. I could only read it when I got within a few feet of it at intermission and could see behind the blooms.

It’s impossible to know how many people at that concert might have done something to benefit or support the musicians but failed to do so simply because they never learned what the musicians hoped their supporters would do.

Similarly, the musicians have an online petition for supporters to sign that as of Monday morning this week had just over 3,000 signatures. Since the petition was begun at the end of March, this seems an incredibly small number of signatures, particularly as the musicians, quite rightly, claim their following is not merely Chicago-based but includes extensive fans around the world. Their plan for the petition surely should have included a concerted push for signatures from the very start, so that it cannot be dismissed as showing a lack of support for the strike. It is a good idea that thus far has had an awkward outcome for the musicians.

The CSOA has cancelled all concerts in April, so we can only hope that in the few days left in this month there will be a breakthrough and the music might begin again at Symphony Center in May.

If you want to read more, the website for the CSO musicians is ChicagoSymphonyMusicians.com (this contains a link to their petition). You can read management’s position and details of its offer at cso.org.