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Current Events: The CSO’s Rivers Festival Bridges Water and Music

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The excursion boat Theodore Roosevelt heads east under the State Street bridge in 1910/Photo: The Lost Panoramas (

The excursion boat Theodore Roosevelt heads east under the State Street bridge in 1910/Photo: The Lost Panoramas (

By Dennis Polkow

City on a river. Chicago is many things, but whatever qualities that make Chicago Chicago exist in no small part because it is a city on a river, albeit a river by and large taken for granted.

For many of us, our own placement as a city on a river is something we forget about until we are inconvenienced by having to go over a bridge or have to wait for a bridge that a boat is passing through or that is undergoing construction.

“The Chicago River is the city’s defining characteristic because it is what built the city,” says Martha Gilmer, vice president for artistic planning and audience development at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra as well as the curator of the CSO’s month-long Rivers Festival which runs May 9-June 9. “The river has taken a second place to our lakefront, but Mayor Daley—and now Rahm Emanuel—is very interested in the development of the Chicago River.”

When Riccardo Muti became CSO music director in 2010, he expressed concern about the usual methods of orchestras determining what repertoire would be performed during a given season.

“[Muti] met with [CSO creative consultant] Yo-Yo Ma at the very beginning of the relationship that they both had with Chicago,” says Gilmer. “They talked about things that were important to [Muti]. One of them was the issue of our youth at risk, that they need to be fairly treated. Muti cannot stand the abuse of children. Nor that people don’t have access to music, or that it might not be easy access. There have been several initiatives in these directions.

“Then, Muti starting talking about the environment, and it was Yo-Yo who said, ‘I think you should do something on rivers.’ He took Muti’s idea about the environment and thought that rivers would be a really interesting theme. It sounded a bit crazy at first, but they were riffing off of each other. It is what creative artists do.

“I had to take the ball and run with it and find partners to make it happen. And [Muti] knows that the end result is a connection to him and his wish. You know his job is to set the vision in broad strokes, we come back with ideas and he says yes or no, and hopefully, we are riffing off one another. That’s the joy of it.”

From its initial utterance as an idea to the full-blown, month-long Rivers Festival that opens Thursday night has taken no less than three years from planning to execution. “There was almost a year of denial—no pun intended to the Egyptian river—while we were still musing,” says Gilmer. “It became more serious and came into being as a shimmer of light. None of this stuff happens overnight—the Dvorák Festival, for instance, was planned a year and a half before it happened. My bewilderment initially was that there were so many pieces, so I could understand the audience’s bewilderment: what are they going to show us? The more we all thought about it, the more it all started to make sense.

“The other thing that’s interesting about rivers is that, like music, there is that famous quote that you can’t put your foot in a river in the same place twice. It is like a note in music: when it is gone, it’s gone. Unlike a painting or a sculpture, with rivers and music, there is that constant shifting temporality of their presence.”

Of course, river music is prevalent, from spirituals such as “Deep River” and “At the River” to classic popular songs such as “Ol’ Man River” and “Cry Me a River,” to the Strauss waltz “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” to Wagner’s gargantuan operatic “Ring” cycle which infamously begins, as comedienne Anna Russell used to say, “in the river. Not at the river, IN the river.”

Riccardo Muti/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Riccardo Muti/Photo: Todd Rosenberg

“I generally am not crazy about themes during seasons,” admits Muti. “You know, this is the theme for this year, this is the theme for next year. It usually is a composer or an anniversary. But this was a great idea. The rivers theme not only puts the accent on music that has been inspired by rivers and waters—which of course, is a lot of music—but it puts an accent on the importance of water for our planet, no?

“Often, we do not realize how important water is for the future of our planet, for our lives, for our health, for our commercial activities. We tend to take water for granted.

“With all of our problems with the environment, if we continue to destroy our planet, then future generations could find themselves without water. Or, with so little water that a shortage becomes so problematic that it can be a disaster that leads to the point of wars as we look into the future.

“So, to put the accent on water not only artistically, but from a geographic and social aspect is an important thing. We underline the importance water has to all of us through a great variety of fantastic music that has been inspired over the years by rivers, lakes, and seas.”

“The river is within us,” wrote T.S. Eliot, and of course, it is literally true in that the human body is seventy percent water. We are all water creatures, water people. Muti, who was born in Naples on the west coast of Italy known as the Tyrrhenian Sea and grew up on the east side of the Italian peninsula known as the Adriatic Sea, says that for him, being near the water is “vital and essential.” “It would be very difficult for me to stay in a city—even one with a great orchestra like the Chicago Symphony—if it were not on the water, this fantastic Lake [Michigan] that is more like a sea.”

Like most Chicagoans, Muti admits that he does not know the Chicago River as well as he knows Lake Michigan, but he is taking steps during the Rivers Festival to get to know it better.

“We are going out on a boat on the river,” says Muti of an event that will be the finale of the Rivers Festival on Sunday afternoon, June 9. “We will have the Chicago Symphony Brass and the Chicago Children’s Choir. The fact that the children will sing and connect music and water together is wonderful. And I will conduct them, they will sing, ‘Va, pensiero.’ ” “Va, pensiero” is the famous Verdi chorus of Hebrew slaves from “Nabucco” which sings of imagined freedom on the banks of the River Jordan.

“We couldn’t have a Rivers Festival and not go on the river,” says Gilmer. “Somehow we had to get ourselves out there. Our colleagues at Redmoon Theater and I spent a lot of time imagining how this could be done, physically being on the river. Chicago has many river communities, of course, but boats cannot go under certain bridges. We received a call from the Chicago Park District because Rahm Emanuel is building boathouses to encourage people to have places to store their boats. One of them is ready for dedication on June 9, a Sunday afternoon, at Ping Tom Park in Chinatown, a great place to go, one of Chicago’s unique neighborhoods.

“Since the orchestra just went to China and with so many of our musicians coming from China, it’s a nice place for us to be able to visit. We’re going to Pilsen as you know next fall, Apostolic Church on the South Side last fall, and now, Chinatown. There will be music in the park in the afternoon and the boat will arrive around 4:45pm. If you’re walking along the river that day, you’ll hear them. They’ll disembark and they’ll perform at the shore as well.”

Florence Price

Florence Price

Among the repertoire to be heard during the Rivers Festival is a piece from African-American composer and early twentieth-century Chicagoan Florence Price, her “Mississippi River” Suite.

“You think of rivers being highways of culture and commerce,” says Gilmer, “of the blues coming to Chicago literally up the Mississippi River, of music on the riverboats. What is interesting about Florence Price’s piece is that she acknowledges the presence of all the Native Americans along the river and uses Native American rhythms, unlike the music of our friend Dvorák that attempts to portray the New World purely from a European perspective.

“There have always been nomads living on barges that are not inhabitants of any state. The further south you go along the river, houses that were painted colors were French-speaking; they were painted white if they didn’t. I remember an Ojibwe woman interviewed in a Mississippi River documentary saying that you have to think about what you want: stew or puree. With stew, you keep the chunks of your identity. Even though it’s all mixed up together, you still can see that there is some potato, some carrot, some substance. There is character and differentiation. So, with the Florence Price piece, it’s not just her own experience of the river.”

Other specific rivers musically represented during the festival include “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” from Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung,” Villa-Lobos’ “Amazonas,” Smetana’s “The Moldau” from “Má vlast,” and the Nile in Saint-Saëns’ “Egyptian” Piano Concerto No. 5. Other music refer to rivers metaphorically such as Takemitsu’s “riverrun” or to water more generally, such as Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet or composer-in-residence Mason Bates’ “Liquid Interface.”

“The opportunity that rivers as a theme gave us is the north-south access between North America and South America,” says Gilmer. “There are bridges to be built, common origins to be understood. We know about the Silk Road being a link between East and West. Rivers flow on all continents, but in particular, it enabled us to look at relationships between North America and South America. So, we have composers from North America with John Luther Adams, Mason Bates and Florence Price represented, and composers from South America that include Marcos Balter, Villa-Lobos and Ginastera. There is also the river of ideas and influences: the word conjures up so much.”

Orbert Davis

Orbert Davis

Of particular interest is the world premiere of a new piece by Orbert Davis called “The Chicago River” that was commissioned by the Rivers Festival and will receive its world premiere on May 24 with Davis’ own Chicago Jazz Philharmonic. Part of the thinking in choosing Davis, a figure at home in the classical and jazz worlds that connects with both, are the various rivers intersecting those worlds that he so fully embodies.

“My orchestra is 100-percent jazz, 100-percent classical,” says Davis. “It is not a big band, that’s for sure. It’s a symphony orchestra with a jazz aesthetic. I don’t want to say that it crosses genres so much as it includes genres. It’s not a matter of, okay, at measure two, we’re a symphony orchestra, and at measure seven, we’re a jazz band. It is taking components of jazz and classical and truly linking them. For instance, one aspect of jazz is feel or swing. We mix that with classical orchestration. Our rhythm section of piano, bass and drums is in the center of the band, but it’s a full sixty to seventy pieces.”

If that sounds similar to what late Chicago composer and arranger William Russo was doing decades ago in writing pieces for jazz band and orchestra, Davis considers Russo his mentor. “I was Bill’s right-hand man for fourteen years. Much of Bill’s philosophy in terms of living in both worlds I hold very dear.

“There really isn’t a sax section [in the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic], but I do have players who double on sax. We have two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, bass clarinet and bassoon. That is our standard structure.”

Unlike many classical and jazz musicians who would carefully distinguish between the printed page of the classical world and the improvised world of the jazz world, for Davis, he sees them both in a similar way.

“For many years, I was a studio musician that would play commercial jingles, some record dates, movies, things like that. I truly lived in both worlds. A typical day I might play piccolo trumpet for a cereal commercial or flugelhorn and then play trumpet sounding like Miles Davis or Dizzy Gillespie. As a composer, I love both genres and I try to be open to the many possibilities out there in both worlds. It’s really a transformation.

“Improvisation is spontaneous composition. It is the same creative process when I write for a symphony orchestra as when I improvise on my trumpet, except improvising on my trumpet is spontaneous. The other art is putting it on paper so that others in the orchestra can collectively perform it.”

Davis sees this way of making music very much in the same tradition of Bach or Mozart who would improvise as part of their skills and job descriptions. “You might actually be composing right now,” says Davis. “I write the piece but I want it to grow. I have a vibraphone solo in the first movement. Do I want a feeling of structure or non structure, being free or completely composed, if it swings or it doesn’t swing? There are a microcosm of possibilities. That first movement ended up being as if Igor Stravinsky were part of the AACM [Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians].”

Part of the catalyst for Davis was James M. Fahey, the director of programming for Symphony Center Presents, who actually commissioned Davis. Fahey wanted Davis to tie in his piece to the 2011 book “Lost Panoramas: When Chicago Changed its River and the Land Beyond” by Michael Williams and Richard Cahan.

Straightening the South Broanch of the Chicago River between Polk and Taylor Streets/Photo: The Lost Panoramas (

Straightening the South Branch of the Chicago River between Polk and Taylor Streets/Photo: The Lost Panoramas (

“Jim was very specific about multiple panoramas from the book,” says Davis. “I got to know Rich [Cahan] really well; we had lunch together all the time. I never compose without very strong connections to other disciplines. How one genre or discipline transfers in its language and aesthetic to music is significant.

“When you think in terms of a river, you think of the aspect of flowing, flow being a verb, which connects with rhythm. So there is already the sense of is it a trickle or is it rushing waters? That is rhythm. So you have the violins and the whole string section and with a drummer swinging, you can start to picture a river. When I think of a river or a specific image of a river, I immediately can hear music.

“For me, I grew up on the banks of the Kankakee River, my family home was in Momence, our backyard was the river so there are so many images I have. When I was six years old, I got caught up in sitting and watching the water go by. During the summer months, that was how I practiced. The neighbors loved it because I was far away and they couldn’t hear me! When I compose, there are so many images that flood my mind based on the river. It was solitary but it also connected with something larger.”

One of the issues addressed in “Lost Panoramas” that Davis portrays in his music is the reversal of the Chicago River. “The building of the canal was because people were dying from illnesses related to sewage from the river going into Lake Michigan. There were lots of clusters, imagine what that must have smelled like. In music, there are compositional techniques to portray the concept of reversal, one of these is retrograde motion, which I use.

“I started out thinking in terms of the Chicago River, but now that the piece is written, it really relates to all rivers, how water moves. A river as a moving force of gravity with a least point of resistance. There are soloists, other instruments joining in with a single line, that’s a river: how one river merges into another river and the two become a greater force until the very end, when it finds rest.”

Like Muti, growing up with water means Davis needs to be near water and says that it is “in my blood. I have to find water, even on vacation.”

Chamber music, recitals, symposia, environmental events, virtually every facet of the various organizations that exist under the broad banner of Symphony Center and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will be taking part in one way or another throughout the month-long Rivers Festival, often in partnership with specific sponsors and other area institutions.

“It gives us another opportunity to show how cultural institutions in general and how our music is part of the fabric of our lives, not separate from it just in a concert hall,” says Gilmer. “The music was written by people in the natural world, who lived in the political world and in our environment, and they were influenced by those things. To come at it from that side and shine a light or place a new lens on the music is part of the intention here.

“But I also hope it might help us become more curious about our river, to take the initiative and learn more about it, about the reverse effect, its flow, invasive species, pollutants. You think of the dry river bed of the Euphrates and you start to realize the danger that we face when rivers are neglected. There was the flood in Memphis two years ago which again, shows the unbelievable power and devastation of a river. The fascinating history, the social history, racial issues. There were times when African Americans and white businesses were walking side by side to make it work. And the subsequent deterioration of that. The river has seen it all. You think of T.S. Eliot talking about ‘brown river’ where cities build bridges over rivers and then become neglected cities.

“And yet there are young architects imagining a future Chicago where people are living on the shores of the river, that there is not just recreation there, but culture as well. We hope to call attention to the Chicago River as a natural resource.. I have paddled on the river and there is a rhythmic and melodic aspect to that experience, of being one with the wind while the water is flowing and your heartbeat is resonating with it. That is the core of what it is, relating with nature.”

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