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Contrabassonist Susan Nigro

nigroSusan Nigro calls herself a “contrabassoon crusader,” and the handle certainly fits this native South Side Chicagoan, who not only plays the instrument, but also gives lectures, demonstrations and workshops on it. She even commissions and performs new works for the woodwind, which dates to the 18th Century, but sounds modern and relevant in Nigro’s capable hands.

“My goal has been to bring this often-neglected instrument out into the limelight as a soloist, so the general public can hear and appreciate its unique and fascinating musical qualities,” Nigro says. In fact, her work spans seven CDs, in addition to a full slate of live recitals. Her musical accomplishments earned her the 2007 Leonardo da Vinci Award from The Order Sons of Italy in America.

Though she traces Italian roots on her father’s side to the village of Matonti in the Salerno province, her ethnic sensibilities as a musician weren’t stirred until high school. “The pivotal point that engendered my Italianness, as well as my destiny to become a classical musician, was meeting my high school band director, Andrew Lumbrazo,” says Nigro, who resides in Riverside. “And years later meeting my late husband, Dr. John Gelsomino, strongly reinforced both of these identities, as he was also a fine Italian-American musician.”

Nigro found her way to the contrabassoon after years of piano, flute and bassoon lessons. “Then as a high school senior, I had the chance to play contrabassoon in the Youth Orchestra of Greater Chicago,” Nigro recalls. “It sealed my fate. I immediately fell in love with the instrument.”

Nigro went on to study contrabassoon at Northwestern University, play it with the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, and take private coaching with Chicago Symphony Orchestra contrabassoonist Burl Lane, who became her professional mentor.

Now, Nigro finds herself filling in for Lane as occasions demand. She’s currently in her fifth season as a permanent substitute with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, filling in for Lane, who retired during the summer of 2008. She calls the opportunity “life-changing,” adding: “The opportunity to perform with this first-class orchestra, under the baton of Maestro Riccardo Muti, has afforded me extraordinary musical experiences.”

Nigro may be a savvy musician, but she’s a very smart one as well. A member of 10 high-IQ societies including Mensa, she devotes lots of time to the study of Italian language, culture and history. Her heart rarely strays from her roots, and she even keeps two Cirneco hounds from Messina, Sicily at home–named, appropriately, Caesar and Cassius.

“Even though I have a U.S. passport, I have an Italian soul,” Nigro says. “Through MyItalianFamily.com, I have documentation of my family roots all the way back to Vito Nigro, who was born in Matonti in 1760. I made a pilgrimage to my Italian hometown in the spring of 2010 and was delighted to make the acquaintance of Giacomo Nigro, a distant cousin and whose family still resides and works in that little part of paradise.”

For more, visit bigbassoon.com

About Lou Carlozo

A former longtime staff writer, editor and columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Lou Carlozo is a personal finance contributor to Reuters and the proud writer of Fra Noi's Lou&A column, which spotlights important Italian Americans. He is currently studying for his master's degree at National-Louis University, where he teaches journalism and writing on the graduate school level. He also writes for the Tribune Content Agency and a variety of other freelance outlets including DealNews, Money Under 30 and Yesware. He lives in the North Center neighborhood of Chicago with his wife of more than 17 years, Amy (a hospice chaplain), and two children.