Chicago’s Youth Orchestra Rides Winged Creatures to Sunday’s Grammys


The GRAMMY Awards will be aired Sunday night on the CBS television network, and Chicago’s classical music fans have a major rooting interest. Winged Creatures, a locally produced album, is one of five finalists for the Best Classical Producer award.

There are multiple reasons why Chicagoans should want Winged (pronounced Wing-ed) Creatures to win:

1) It is a release of Cedille Records, the city’s only classical music label. Third Coast Review has published a feature story about Cedille and a review of Winged Creatures.

2) Jim Ginsburg, the nominated producer, founded Cedille in 1989 and remains its leading figure.

3) Ginsburg also is the son of Supreme Court Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and there are few in Chicago who do not love — and wish many happy returns to — the “Notorious R.B.G.”

4) The lead performers on the album are Chicago’s Demarre and Anthony McGill, respectively the principal flutist of the Seattle Symphony and the principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic.

But for those of us who thrill at younger generations carrying on the grand tradition of classical music, the best reason to root for a GRAMMY win is this: The musicians backing the DeMarre brothers are teenagers learning their craft as members of the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra (CYSO).

In fact, both Demarre and Anthony McGill studied and performed with the CYSO on their road from the South Side neighborhood of Chatham to classical music stardom.

In the latest of Third Coast Review’s explorations of the creative process, we interviewed Allen Tinkham, CYSO’s music director since 2001.

The following excerpts cover how the album was conceived and executed; the recruitment of Michael Abels to compose the title track, just before he gained acclaim for his soundtrack to the 2017 horror film Get Out;  and CYSO’s enduring role in promoting love for classical music among young musicians.

Conductor Allen Tinkham and the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra take their bows at an October 2019 concert. Photo credit: Mike Grittani

How did how this project get under way?

We’ve known Anthony and Demarre for many years. About eight years ago, Joel Puckett was a composer in residence at the CYSO… Joel in the process of writing a bunch of pieces for us said, “Hey, I have this idea for a double concerto for Anthony and Demarre McGill,” and we said, “Fantastic.”… And so that is how the Concerto Duo [a composition on the Winged Creatures album] came to be… Then Anthony and Demarre went away, and we wondered what kind of life the piece might have.

The very next thing was Jim [Ginsburg] contacted us about it. The recording was Jim’s idea… He wanted to do something with Anthony and Demarre. He had recorded with them before in trio with a pianist, but he had never done an orchestra recording with them, and had the idea that that we would all do this together…

Then it came to be, what are we going to put on this recording? Obviously, he wanted the Puckett  and they had talked about some older pieces, including Saint-Saens’ Tarantella. [The DeMarre Brothers played this piece on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1994, when they were teenagers.]

It was Anthony and Demarre who said, “What about Michael Abels? It would be great to have a black composer on this CD,” and especially someone who has such a long history in in Chicago. Things really started blowing up for him about this time because we commissioned him just before he did the music for Get Out.

He wrote the piece, and I was immediately blown away because of the craft. I mean the piece is incredibly beautiful and listenable from the first second, easily digested by even a total classical music newbie. But the craft of it, it’s built in a way, that is so organic.

The main theme of the piece is a second of the interval, major second down, major second up, minor second down, minor second up. The way he puts them together gives this feeling of fluttering energy throughout the piece… 

We gave the world premiere [in June 2018] at League of American Orchestras Conference here in Chicago at Orchestra Hall in front of basically the entire industry… The immediate response was, this is fantastic… Our first rehearsal with Anthony and Demarre was that morning, the morning of the premiere. So there was no small amount of stress related to a performance like that, accompanying two classical superstars, basically for the entire industry, on a world premiere with the first rehearsal like six hours before the show.

And young people appearing on one of the most famous stages in the world. 

Oh, yeah, it was it was crazy. So that was on a Thursday, and we we rehearsed with them some more, gave a concert Saturday afternoon of the four pieces that are featured on the recording, and that’s where Jim came in… We ended up recording the piece in the Studebaker Theater [located in the Fine Arts Building on South Michigan Avenue]…

We recorded the whole CD in about a day and a half, and it was just an incredible experience…

Now I’ve never witnessed a symphonic performance recorded. Is it ever done in one take? 

Any classical recording, you want to try and begin with the performance, not only to get one solid run-through of everything, but to make sure the pacing of everything is correct… We started with a run-through but then the next day it was large chunks, and then going to smaller chunks. And for Jim it’s very important to not do chunks too small, because it’s much more difficult to make everything flow as if it were one take… One of the great things about working with him is he’s incredibly sensitive to tempo…

I think a lot of people have no idea really what a producer does, and what the producer does is exactly that, produce. They put together all the right people in a combination that will help everyone do their absolute best work. And that’s really exactly what he did for us.

Winged creatures, and you used the term “fluttering” earlier. Was this conceived to bear that title? 

No, Michael named the piece Winged Creatures… None of the other pieces really worked as a title, and it just seemed to encapsulate everything… Not only does it does it conjure that feeling, but these guys are absolutely figuratively flying around on those instruments.

So how did the the current performers in the orchestra feel? I mean the brothers are role models, legends.

I mean to be with the principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic and the principal flutist of the Seattle Symphony, and to know that those guys. And they said to them at one point during the session, “You know, we used to sit right there,” and they talked about their days in CYSO. And at the conference, part of our performance was an interview that they did talking about their their history growing up in Chicago. The topic of the discussion was issues of race in the classical music field, and the extremely small numbers of in particular African American musicians in American orchestras. One of their main points was that CYSO was their introduction to the field… They have suggested that who knows where we might have been without this this opportunity…

Many people not in the CYSO family don’t realize that CYSO was started by young people themselves. It was in 1946… Young people have always been the focus. For decades, it was just one orchestra that played a couple of concerts a year at Orchestra Hall. Now to see the way it’s grown, especially in the last 30 years or so, to an organization with five full orchestras, three string orchestras, dozens of chamber groups, a steel program, a jazz

 program, composition program. It’s incredibly fulfilling to see what has what has happened, and to have been a part of that especially the last 19 years…

I know the importance of my teachers to me and in my life, and I think of how important their teachers were to them… As I am the product of my teachers’ work and my teachers’ thoughts, they will be the product of my influence, and their students and their children and their colleagues will be beneficiaries of their study. It lasts much longer than people realize. The work we’re doing here will live for generations.


After hoping for their share of GRAMMY glory on Sunday, CYSO will turn its full attention to its annual gala, which will be held on February 8 at the Four Seasons Hotel off the Magnificent Mile. The theme is “An American in Paris,” and there will be a performance of that classic by George Gershwin, with French music, some of it contemporary with Gershwin’s era almost a century ago. Individual tickets for the gala are $400 and can be purchased at the CYSO website.

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Bob Benenson

Bob Benenson is publisher/writer/photographer of Local Food Forum, a new newsletter that covers the broad sweep of the Chicago region’s food community. He is a longtime advocate for a better, healthier, more sustainable food system and is an avid home cook who gets most of his delicious ingredients from local farmers.