Chicago on the Aisle
by Nancy Malitz
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It was going to be a hectic week for classical music. Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato was about to make her Chicago Symphony Orchestra debut with music director Riccardo Muti in a rare Italian work, and bass-baritone Eric Owens, over at the Lyric Opera, was readying the role of Wotan, king of the gods in Wagner’s “Ring” cycle, for the first time in his career.

Yet these three internationally celebrated artists made time on Sept. 25 to perform for incarcerated youths within the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice, where boys in conflict with the law, most of them in their mid to late teens, are held for an intensive period of education and intervention designed to set them on a safer course. Some were in the final stretch prior to release for offenses such as a parole violation, intent to distribute drugs and possessing or discharging a weapon.

The inconspicuous entrance at the Illinois Youth Center-Chicago is tucked into a corner beneath a windowless warehouse façade at the back of a parking lot on the city’s west side. Once through heavy layers of security, the visiting musicians and a few observers entered into a capacious gym, where several solo players in the CSO were already warming up. A makeshift stage area had been set up at the sideline, between basketball hoops at either end.

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