If you’ve spent any time immersed in Chicago’s classical music scene, you know that one of its hardest working and visionary leaders is conductor Mina Zikri, the founder and music director of the Oistrakh Symphony of Chicago, resident conductor of Chicago’s Lira Ensemble, and music director of the Northbrook Symphony.
Born in Cairo, Egypt, Zikri was in Germany in 1999 when he met then-Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim. Soon after, Zirki followed Barenboim to Chicago to work with him and attend the School of Music at DePaul University. The city has been his home base ever since, even as his career continues to take him around the world; each season he returns to Egypt as a guest conductor for the Cairo National Symphony, and he recently returned from a European tour as an assistant conductor with Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.
In 2005, Zikri was exploring conducting and working on his Master’s degree in violin performance at DePaul, when he noticed that his peers were struggling to find stable employment in their field. That inspired him to start Oistrakh—taking the name of 20th century virtuoso Russian violinist David Oistrakh—and create new opportunities for musicians in the Chicago area. “This was a time when simply orchestras were closing and things were getting a bit hard for classical music,” he said. “The level of training of young musicians was getting very high, but the market couldn’t really take that many good musicians. A conductor is usually a leader, so I decided to start my own group and try to fund it one way or another out of sheer determination.”
At that point he met with Donald Casey, the Dean of DePaul’s University School of Music, to request some resources to help him get his orchestra off the ground. “In an unprecedented move, he actually approved it,” Zikri said. “For several years, in an unofficial capacity, we were basically performing and getting stage management help from the university.”
Along with fostering emerging talent, Oistrakh seeks to revolutionize the experience between orchestra and audience, and enhance individual relationships with classical music. Zikri feels this is especially important in an era where society is facing unprecedented global challenges and the 24/7 news cycle has deepened divisions along political lines. “At this time there are so many political problems, economic problems, and environmental problems that people sometimes forget something very important about art; it’s something we can agree and disagree about without needing to fight. . . it’s the one thing that separates us from being animals and it’s the one thing that can truly unify us.” He brings that perspective to his work with Lira Ensemble as well, which seeks to foster cultural exchange through the preservation of traditional Polish music, song, and dance.
In step with their mission, Oistrakh creates concerts designed for audiences of all ages, often blending in popular genres and working with guest collaborators. They also take special care to center Chicago’s youngest generations of music fans, performing in Chicago schools, and offering week-long in-school instructional programming with Music Inspires! And parents and teachers take note: Oistrakh performances are at no charge for students.
That dedication to Chicago’s youth springs to life at the upcoming Oistrakh Symphony Fall Concert at DePaul’s Gannon Concert Hall on September 18, where Zikri will lead the orchestra in Mozart’s Symphony No. 30 in D Major K. 202 and Hayden’s Cello Concerto No. 2 in D major Hob. Vllb: 2, which will feature 16-year-old cellist Jan Vargas Nedvetsky as a guest soloist. And on October 16, Zikri will conduct the Northbrook Symphony as it kicks off its new season with a family concert titled “Mozart’s Magnificent Voyage” featuring Classical Kids Live!, which tells the story of Mozart and his son, Karl.
“If we’re going to focus on a young audience, we want to present a young musician from time to time as an example of how music can become more than just a profession, it could become a way of life.” Zikri says. “If I’m a high schooler or middle schooler, and I come to a concert where the soloist is 14 or 15, that will definitely have an impact on me; not necessarily that I’d want to become a musician, but seeing someone that focused and disciplined in a specialized field could open many channels in how I think about myself and what I want to do in the future.”
To get tickets to Oistrakh Symphony of Chicago Sept 18, 2022 , visit http://www.oistrakhsymphony.org/
For tickets to Lira Ensemble Sept 14, 24, and 25, 2022, visit https://liraensemble.org/
For tickets to Northbrook Symphony October 16, 2022, visit https://www.northbrooksymphony.org/
This content sponsored by Jamie Ludwig at Chicago Reader