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Inmates, orchestra perform concert in jail

CHICAGO -- Strains of classical music echoed yesterday in a bleak jail where the mostly teenage boys await trial on charges ranging from dope dealing to murder.

The concert was part of a unique outreach that's the brainchild of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's musical director, the Naples-born Riccardo Muti, who attended the event at the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center on Chicago's West Side.

The concert included half a dozen orchestra members, but the center-stage performers were some 10 inmates who participated in a weeklong musical workshop at the lockup. It culminated in the Sunday concert with compositions the inmates wrote in collaboration with the professionals.

"This is a wonderful beginning for you and for us," Muti told the group at the end of the 45-minute performance. "You will join society with the sense of harmony you learned here."

One composition began with a double bass playing a Bach cello suite. It changed direction jarringly a minute later as the teen inmates joined in rapping. One sang about his legal plight: "I hope the judge says I served my time. . . . I'm praying God gets me out of this jam." Some of the boys' parents sat in the audience, several with tears in their eyes.

When one of the organizers announced the inmates and their families will receive CD recordings of the concert, one mother buried her head in her hands. "Oh my God, this is so special," she said aloud.

The goal of the outreach, which has included other jail visits, is to impart a wider appreciation for music and to inspire at-risk youth. It seemed to work for at least some.

"I learned more about classical music," a teen named Ricky told reporters after the concert. "I'd heard of Bee-thoven and Bach. I liked it."

Love or hate the music, the experience had to have been a welcome change of pace from the sheer tedium and anxiety of a regimented existence. The center's 2012 annual report noted that, almost daily, someone either talks about killing himself or tries. It holds around 250 inmates in total, a few of whom aren't yet teens.

Muti once performed Robert Schumann's "Warum?" ("why" in German) in a Milan prison. He was asking inmates what had brought them to such misfortune, he said.

"We will meet again in the future," said Muti, 71. "Not here! But on the outside."

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