How to Imagine a Symphony Orchestra: Mina Zikri and The Oistrakh Symphony of Chicago
Mina Zikri is a lot like other artists, or at least he’s a lot like other promising, new artists who you might not know about. When you see him perform, for example, not only is the intensity of his dedication is immediately clear, but as is often true with very creative performers, there’s likely to be a sense of surprise in the blend of impressions that he brings to an audience. Mina Zikri is doing something else that promising new artists sometimes manage to do. He’s quietly gathering around him a group of other artists, like-minded people inspired by what he imagines, and dedicated to making what he imagines real.
As far as being a lot like other artists, though, that’s about it, because Mina Zikri is unique in so many ways. His approach to his art is unique, his background is unique, and his journey from the music schools of Cairo to the classical concert halls of Chicago and the world is, and continues to be, a uniquely promising adventure. Like many gifted artists, you get the impression that everything he does is part of a coherent, reaching vision, yet even in that there’s something unusual. Zikri’s vision actually has a name; it’s called The Oistrakh Symphony of Chicago, a group of richly talented classical performers that Zikri describes as ‘youthful’ rather than ‘young’.
Mina Zikri conducting The Oistrakh Symphony of Chicago (Photo by Johnny Nevin)
Mina Zikri is a conductor, the kind of promising young conductor who could be traveling the world full-time performing with international orchestras; in August he traveled with Daniel Barenboim as the backstage and assistant conductor for Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde on a tour that took them to Europe and South America (performing at The Salzburg Festival in Austria, at The Lucerne Festival in Switzerland, and at Buenos Aires’ legendary Teatró Colón), and he returns each season to his native Egypt to guest conduct the Cairo Symphony. He could be doing a lot more of that, but because his vision of what music can be, and what it should be, is so clear, he chooses not to. Instead, he founded the Oistrakh Symphony of Chicago (originally as ‘The Oistrach Symphony Orchestra, the orchestra changed its name at the end of 2014). At a time when even some of the greatest orchestras in the United States are failing under the immense pressures of financial and cultural uncertainty, Zikri believes that the future of symphony orchestras can be, should be, and must be different from what everyone seems to expect.
The Oistrakh Symphony of Chicago (Photo by Johnny Nevin)
He joined the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in 1999, and he continues to tour and perform with them around the world. Joining the legendary orchestra in its first year wasn’t just an extraordinary opportunity, it was an exceptional set of experiences. Among the people that he met were conductor Daniel Barenboim, at that time Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Chicago Civic Orchestra conductor Cliff Colnot. He was able to enroll in the School of Music at Chicago’s DePaul University, first as an undergraduate, and then as a graduate student. Like young classical musicians at universities and conservatories across America, he worked with other gifted young musicians, building the beginning of a very promising career in the hopeful world of academic optimism.
The Oistrakh Symphony of Chicago (Photo by Johnny Nevin)
It’s a reality that many people can see, but one of the things that makes Zikri and the Oistrakh Symphony so unique is the unusually thoughtful way in which they defy it. It begins with Zikri’s understanding of what music is, and what it can be, and builds coherently on that understanding with insight into how musicians make music together, and what makes the best music for an audience.
“The message that the orchestra brings is that music is a necessity,” he says unequivocally. “It’s an essential part of life, it’s part of the structure of being a person.” Zikri’s understanding of music, in the sense of music theory, is careful and thorough, as you would expect from an artist so rigorously trained. When you talk with him, his insight and reflections on important composers, or how different schools and styles of music have succeeded one another, often find effortless context in the conversation, but his real understanding goes deeper. He understands how people make music together.
It begins with being a professional, and notwithstanding his own high standards of professionalism, his view on that is characteristically unique. “With music, you can only be professional to a certain level,” he says, “if you want to be an artist, you have to stop being a professional.” At first, it’s an astonishing assertion, but like so many of Zikri’s precise perceptions, it’s well thought out. “When you’re a professional, you know your minimum, and that’s not good,” he goes on to explain, “because you’re supposed to always be going for the maximum.”
It’s an insight that might be immediately relevant to an individual artist, but could anyone communicate that to a group of highly trained professionals? In a symphony orchestra, even the professional ‘minimum’ requires a precision of timing and tuning and technical craft that are, in themselves, substantial challenges. “When people see something they can believe in, they will give more,” he says, and that may be the heart of what he brings together in the Oistrakh Symphony of Chicago.
The Oistrakh Symphony of Chicago performing Michael Druzinsky’s Apothecary (Photo by Johnny Nevin)
It’s as if defying the widely shared expectation that symphony orchestras can no longer succeed is not enough to aspire to, but understanding better how to make music with others has everything to do with what Zikri is trying to bring to his audiences. By including more of the creativity and inspiration of each of the individual musicians involved in making the music, Zikri believes that you can make music that can be shared more widely, more successfully. In doing that, he hopes to accomplish something truly unique. Mina Zikri is hoping that everyone will be able to see as far beyond common expectations as he does.