Young Composer’s ‘Lighted Things’ To Shine On The Road

Elizabeth Ogonek, 28, wrote ‘All These Lighted Things’ for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where she is one of two composers in residence. (Photo by Sophie Wingland)
By Nancy Malitz

CHICAGO — Throughout the 1980s, when Riccardo Muti was in his 40s at the helm of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Italian conductor championed new musical compositions by many of his elder contemporaries — among them Ralph Shapey, György Ligeti, Luciano Berio, Krzysztof Penderecki, Richard Wernick, and Bernard Rands — in addition to the slightly younger Steven Stucky and Christopher Rouse.

As music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Muti, now 76, occasionally revisits these works — Penderecki’s ocarina-rich The Awakening of Jacob confounded the ears afresh at the season’s opening concerts — but the maestro primarily focuses his attention on the younger generations.

Riccardo Muti salutes Ogonek at the Chicago Symphony premiere.
(Todd Rosenberg)

Nearly half a century younger in the case of the two promising Chicago Symphony composers currently in residence, one of whom is Minnesota-born Elizabeth Ogonek, 28. In a late September Orchestra Hall program abundant with riches, Ogonek’s All These Lighted Things revealed itself as a dancelike work in three parts, with ingratiating lilt and a segment of mystical calm at its center.

Ogonek’s world premiere, commissioned by the CSO, was lodged between Rossini’s William Tell Overture and Muti’s luxuriously unhurried reading of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 — part of a multi-year exploration of the entire Bruckner symphony cycle. Such peaks cast big shadows, and yet Ogonek’s work shone its own graceful light.

The title All These Lighted Things is taken from a snippet of Buddhist-influenced poetry by the American Trappist monk Thomas Merton, in which a moment of “sweet, irrational worship” creates the sensation of becoming literally at one with the earth on a splendid, sun-infused day. Ogonek’s principal melodic material is a gently twirling dance rhythm of disarming weightlessness and pliability, upon which various orchestral voices muse extensively and, sometimes, ecstatically.

Ogonek’s opus draws from poetry of Thomas Merton. (Wiki)

All These Lighted Things is about to go on tour with the CSO — to Kansas City (Oct. 11) and Berkeley (Oct. 13) during a forthcoming seven-city western swing.

Like many contemporary composers, Ogonek makes free use of an expanded percussion section, not so much for old-style rhythmic exclamation as for overtly exuberant melodic contributions from mallet instruments and timpani, along with an abundance of bell-like sonic arrays and textures arising from lush, cricket-level murmurs.

Ogonek’s music also taps into the rituals and subject matter of the Catholic tradition: Her mother was a church organist, and Ogonek has written that as a child her mind took flights of fancy as she whiled away her time in the choir loft. The daydreaming was a touchstone for last season’s Ogonek premiere, a pageant for wildly re-tuned and amplified solo violin with accompanying chamber forces, inspired by Heinrich Biber’s similarly “mistuned” (scordatura) devotions, written in 1676, on the life of Jesus and Mary.

Ogonek and Samuel Adams, center, succeed Anna Clyne and Mason Bates as the newest
composers in residence at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (Todd Rosenberg)

All These Lighted Things opens on a zephyr-like, pianissimo high E, to which woodwinds and bells respond in circling calls that elude easy repetition, not unlike birdsong. There’s a sense of unhurried preamble, of life beginning to stir, in a nod to the symphonic tradition of forest murmurs, their rivulets and roundelays, even to the sublimation inherent in Merton’s idea of a heart that “bursts with hay and flowers.”

The second movement is admirable for its broad restraint in the service of simplicity; it’s a quiet cameo with a night-music feel — solos for bassoon, bass clarinet, and violin float dreamlike over a slow pulse of somnolent orchestral sighs. The finale finds Ogonek’s musical material robust and malleable still; she gives it some wily hiccups for a catchy siren call that draws in more and more instruments as the music proceeds, as if each individual is separately drawn toward the gathering throng.

Celebrating 20 years of MusicNOW, from left, Augusta Read Thomas, Samuel Adams,
Ogonek, John Corigliano, Shulamit Ran, and Mason Bates. (Todd Rosenberg)

All These Lighted Things is a solid demonstration of Ogonek’s skill with the dance model. Muti is likely to increase the challenge, as he did for her predecessors Mason Bates and Anna Clyne. As a component of that development, Ogonek and fellow resident composer Samuel Adams, a 31-year-old California native, will continue to curate the orchestra’s off-campus MusicNOW program of innovative new-music concerts. On Oct. 2, in celebration of MusicNOW’s 20th anniversary, Ogonek and Adams introduced works by seven of their predecessors, some of whom were present — Shulamit Ran, Osvaldo Golijov, John Corigliano, Augusta Read Thomas and Mark-Anthony Turnage, in addition to Bates and Clyne.

Ogonek acknowledges applause for ‘All These Lighted Things.’ (Todd Rosenberg)

Corigliano, who was composer-in-residence from 1987-90, during Georg Solti’s directorship, spoke in retrospect about the value of the experience that Ogonek is now immersed in. Via video, he described the writing of his first symphony, which commemorated friends lost to AIDS, while in residence. The orchestra recorded and toured it, assisting greatly in the establishment of his career, he said, adding that the chance to work closely with CSO musicians was transformative; being able to ask specific questions of musicians at such a level of virtuosity took his music “past the bounds of what I thought possible before. My vocabulary changed.”

Adams and Ogonek host and curate MusicNOW. (Todd Rosenberg)

In February 2018, Muti will reprise many words of love by Samuel Adams. First heard last season, many words of love is an electroacoustic lament inspired by Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise; it is to be introduced at Kennedy Center (Feb. 7), Carnegie Hall (Feb. 10), and Chapel Hill (Feb. 17) during an extensive East Coast tour. 

A new MusicNOW commission for Ogonek, and another for Adams, will premiere in May 2018 at Orchestra Hall, on a MusicNOW concert led by Esa-Pekka Salonen with additional works by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdóttir and Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg.

Nancy Malitz is the publisher of Chicago On the Aisle, the founding music critic at USA Today, and a former cultural columnist for The Detroit News. She has written about the arts for a variety of national publications.