So far, Chicago audiences have heard only chamber pieces by Elizabeth Ogonek, who shares the CSO’s Mead composer-in-residence post with Samuel Adams. Since she arrived two years ago at Symphony Center, MusicNOW, the CSO’s contemporary chamber music series, has presented two of her works: Falling Up, in 2016, and In Silence, a CSO commission that had its world premiere in May.
This fall, audiences will hear what Ogonek can do with a full-scale symphony orchestra. On Sept. 28-29 and Oct. 1, Music Director Riccardo Muti will conduct the CSO in the world premiere of Ogonek’s All These Lighted Things, a CSO commission. The program also features the overture to Rossini’s William Tell and Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 (Romantic).
At first Ogonek thought she would pay homage to both the Rossini and Bruckner pieces in her new work. “I had imagined at the beginning that I really wanted to write a set of mazurkas,” said Ogonek, a Minnesota native, who studied piano through her high school and early college years. She is especially fond of Chopin, the composer whose vibrant, short piano works brought the mazurka, a signature folk dance of his native Poland, into the concert hall. “I thought it would be really wacky if I could use material from the other pieces on the program, to use them as raw source materials for these mazurkas.”
A good idea in theory maybe. Not so much in execution. “I kept failing at that,” said Ogonek with a rueful laugh. “Failed just miserably. So I thought, ‘Time to start over.’ ”
She retained the mazurka idea and decided to employ another of her favorite musical devices: the character piece. Like Chopin’s sets of nocturnes, mazurkas and ballades, they’re “collections of short pieces that are in some way linked.”
Running approximately 15 minutes, All These Lighted Things is organized in three movements, or as Ogonek explains, three dances. “The first dance is really ecstatic and very bright,” she said. “It has a lot of metallic sounds, [the mood is that of] overwhelming happiness. The second one is a slow dance that only reveals itself as a dance very sparsely, only in certain moments. The third dance is again pretty ecstatic but in a much different way. I think the third dance feels very communal.”
The work’s title comes from a poem by Thomas Merton, the 20th-century French-born American poet and Trappist monk. A meditation on dawn, it belongs to a set of Merton poems inspired by the Book of Hours, a collection of Christian prayers dating to the Middle Ages.
Poetry is “incredibly important” to Ogonek. She earned her doctorate in composition in 2015 from London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama, after focusing much of her doctoral research on the relationship between words and music. Many of her compositions are inspired by text or include words to be sung or spoken.
“It was a developmental thing for me, using text as inspiration but also as a structuring element,” she said. “It helped me hone in on the things that were important to my craft as a composer, to refine my technical abilities. It was a way of imposing creative constraints on myself so I could really measure what I was doing. I haven’t worked with text much recently because I’m branching away from that. I’m involving myself in other things that can provide those creative constraints.”
With the idea of dawn in mind, Ogonek highlights bells in All These Lighted Things, among them Burma bells, which she described as “these beautiful little brass disks.”
“You won’t be able to see them from the audience, but they make a very lovely metallic sound,” she said. “I love bells, all kinds of bells, the really pure bells — the way the glockenspiel sounds. But I also love impure and imperfect bells. All These Lighted Things is really about brightness, beams of light happening.”
The piece is also specifically tailored to the CSO. “I was absolutely thinking about the famous CSO brass, and this beautiful flexibility of the orchestra as a whole, especially the string section,” she said. “I was thinking about [principal percussionist] Cynthia Yeh and how she loves to play mallet instruments.
“But I was thinking also about Maestro Muti, the things I admire about his conducting and the sounds he’s able to get out of the orchestra. I thought about that so much in the second movement, which is really, really slow. Its individual measures are huge. I thought about the tension and restraint required to project the kind of physicality I was going for. That flexibility is so beautifully captured in the chemistry between the orchestra and Maestro Muti. This is very much a piece for the CSO.”
Wynne Delacoma, classical music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times from 1991 t0 2006, is a Chicago-based arts journalist and lecturer.
TOP: Elizabeth Ogonek at a MusicNOW concert in April. | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography 2017