“With a melody, we’re always going somewhere,” said Julianne Skones, oboe clutched by her side. Next to her, Dominic Rotella stood with his French horn pressed to his pursed lips. Scattered in chairs throughout the room, a motley crowd of listeners waited attentively for their part of the performance.
“Let’s follow along with our hands,” she said. As Rotella’s horn sounded out a few lines of Beethoven, the audience traced the gentle arch of the music up and then down with their open palms stretched out in front of them. The next bit of song was a little more complex–hands darted rapidly trying to follow the ambitious runs and bounding staccatos of the horn.
The two musicians formed part of the Civic Woodwind Quintet, with the three other woodwind players seated behind them. Along with a string and brass quintet, and a percussion trio, the groups are part of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Musicorps program. The sections regularly travel the city, giving concerts in parks, schools, and other public venues, spreading a love of classical music to anyone with an ear. Each crowd is a little different, which means that each performance is unique.
“We’d love your ideas and your imagination to help us tell a story of the music,” said Maria Schwartz, the flautist, after the quintet had played through Beethoven. Behind her, clarinetist Brian Gnojek produced a white sheet of paper, and a handful of colored pens. Drew Patterson played a soft yet stern melody on his bassoon. “What does the music remind you of?” The crowd was silent.
Filling the silence, Patterson jumped in: “One of my favorite suggestions came from an elementary schooler, who said it sounded like a person walking.” He played the melody again, the notes teetering along from side to side. “Another person said an elephant,” he continued, and drew out the same line, heavier and slower. After playing it once more, a man threw out a suggestion: “Tom and Jerry?”
Drew started playing the oboe in his school’s 6th grade band, later going on to study at Oberlin Conservatory. “I had a good music teacher,” he shrugged, attempting to explain his interest in the instrument. Yet it was the first time he watched Disney’s visually immersive interpretation of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” and it’s prime bassoon solo, that hooked him on the instrument. For him, it’s all in the power of imagination. “Like what we were doing today,” he said.
The performance took place on the second floor of the Washington Park Refectory. Out the windows, the sun shined over little kids running through a glistening playground, and a light breeze rollicked through the fresh buds on the trees. Inside, the room was less than half-full. The success of the performance, however, will be revealed by the turnout at the next concert.
Julianne recalled a time she was helping out the CSO with a performance of “Peter and the Wolf.” Afterwards, a little boy came up with his mother, ecstatic to see her. She couldn’t quite tell where he was from, or how she knew him. “How could he remember me?” she asked. Alas, she had performed at his elementary school.