Capping 20 years of high-energy contemporary music, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNOW series will take over Symphony Center’s Armour Stage on May 21 for a season-finale concert of world premieres by Mead Composers-in-Residence Samuel Adams and Elizabeth Ogonek. Though MusicNOW concerts typically occur at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Millennium Park, Adams and Ogonek both like the idea of presenting a program at the CSO’s home base as one way of making this 20th season special.
Appointed in 2015 by Music Director Riccardo Muti, Adams and Ogonek will conclude their three-year residencies in June. Among their responsibilities, they have curated MusicNOW events and helped the CSO’s contemporary music series thrive. At the Harris, post-concert parties of free food and drink cater to a younger crowd with a taste for the latest, from live improvisation to interdisciplinary theatrical creations to electro-acoustical experiments. For some of these MusicNOW aftcionados, Orchestra Hall will be yet another new experience.
Adams and Ogonek have written works for the full CSO that were premiered by Muti in Chicago and then featured on tour. They also have written small-ensemble works first given at the Harris. This time, their works will receive their premieres under Finnish conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, a composer himself and a frequent guest with the CSO.
The Mead residency, which allows young composers to work closely with one of the world’s best orchestras, “certainly has made a huge difference in my life,” said Ogonek, 28, from the Oberlin College and Conservatory, where she began teaching about the same time she started with MusicNOW. “It has taught me the value of a real-world point of view, as opposed to existing in a musical vacuum. I now emphasize with students that the end goal is always performance. If that sounds like a ‘duh’ statement, believe it or not, it is not common to be able to workshop your pieces with a group, and to have that group perform them, and to make revisions as a result. That practicality is essential to being a composer, and I am fortunate that I had that experience with the CSO.”
For instance, after listening to rehearsals and consulting with Muti, Ogonek revised her 2017 work, All These Lighted Things, as it headed toward its Chicago world premiere and subsequent performances on the CSO’s West Coast tour. Adams had a similar opportunity to hear his latest orchestral work, many words of love, with Muti and the CSO in Chicago and along the East Coast, and subsequently with Miami’s pre-professional New World Symphony.
Along with the two premieres, the MusicNOW season finale will feature Related Rocks (1997) by Magnus Lindberg, Salonen’s Finnish compatriot, and Ró (Serenity), an 11-minute composition from 2013 for eight players by prominent Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdóttir. Ró has already been recorded by Deutsche Grammophon on an all-Thorvaldsdóttir album titled “Aerial.”
“Elizabeth and I have long desired to do a piece of hers,” said Adams, 32, from his California studio. “Given the nature of her music and where it’s headed and the general excitement, we thought Orchestra Hall was the appropriate space for it.”
As a strong advocate for new music, Adams has worked with the CSO’s Negaunee Music Institute to nurture the development of a workshop and performance platform for younger composers. “We wanted to concentrate on people in their early to mid-20s,” Adams said. “We started with local-area candidates, and in the second year, we expanded our scope to the Midwest; this season we went national with an application pool of almost 200 composers. It has grown exponentially.” Top-flight musicians from Chicago-based new-music groups such as Eighth Blackbird and ICE have helped the composers try out their ideas.
The May 21 concert will showcase Adams’ new chamber violin concerto, his second for the instrument; the featured soloist will be Tokyo-born Canadian violinist Karen Gomyo. “I know it’s a strange thing to say, I just finished my second violin concerto,” he said with a chuckle. “Composers like to separate their concertos by a healthy 10-year period, but I wrote one in 2012 for Anthony Marwood, and after it was performed, I sent it to some colleagues and friends. It ended up in front of Karen Gomyo, and she fell in love with it. We talked about doing it somewhere, but I knew I was going to write a piece for this concert with Esa-Pekka, and I wanted to make something densely compressed and very diffrent from the slower, more luminous concerto I wrote in the past. This one has a kind of pre-classical Baroque energy to it, and I think it’s possibly my most extroverted piece of music ever.”
Ogonek’s new work is The Water Cantos [notes from quiet places]. “It’s for a very bizarre ensemble,” she said. “I wrote it for 12 players: a flute doubling on piccolo and alto flute, two clarinets doubling on bass clarinet, three percussionists, a pianist, four cellos and double bass. It grew out of experiences I had with musicians in the orchestra I got to know on tour. So the piece is a series of portraits, in a way.
“The whole four-cellos thing came out of hearing them play the beginning of Rossini’s Overture to William Tell what seemed like 400 times [on the CSO’s 2017 West Coast tour], and the way the cellos played so exquisitely together. I had been planning to write a completely different piece, but I sat there, thinking, “I can’t believe I’m loving this so much.”
Nancy Malitz is the founder of the arts websites Chicago On the Aisle and Classical Voice North America.
TOP: Bathed in the neon lights of the Harris Theater, Samuel Adams and Elizabeth Ogonek celebrate after the world premiere of Amy Beth Kirsten’s Savior on April 2. | Todd Rosenberg Photography 2018