By Nancy Malitz
CHICAGO – MusicNOW, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s contemporary music program, was in festive mode as composers-in-residence Elizabeth Ogonek, 28, and Samuel Adams, 32, concluded the season with special concerts celebrating the program in its 20th year.
At the Harris Theater atop Millennium Park in April, they presented the world premiere of Amy Beth Kirsten’s Savior, an ambitious re-imagining of Joan of Arc’s visions in an elaborate multimedia staged setting. In early May, they matched music with various spaces in the rambling Art Institute of Chicago, where even the sculptures seemed to listen. That evening included Christopher Cerrone’s haunting percussion reverie Memory Palace, which took place inside a full-size replica of the Chicago Stock Exchange.
The final MusicNOW event of the season, bathed in laid-back purple haze, came on May 21 at Orchestra Hall, where the world premieres of chamber-orchestra works by Ogonek and Adams were led by Esa-Pekka Salonen. It was an occasion when the CSO as a whole had paused to catch its breath in the midst of a quite overwhelming series of Mahler Ninths that Salonen was conducting simultaneously.
Adams and Ogonek are the second pair of young American composers appointed by CSO music director Riccardo Muti to have won the loyalty of Chicago’s new-music fans. The first were Mason Bates and Anna Clyne, who stayed for five years and now thrive at the international level. All four held their endowed positions through the Mead Composer-In-Residence program, which encompasses curating as well as composing. Muti provided additional exposure for their new works on extensive national tours.
The Mead program was established in 2002, during the Daniel Barenboim era, with a major gift – from longtime CSO benefactor Cynthia M. Sargent and her sister, the late Sally Mead Hands – that was envisioned to endow a 20-year program. At the time, Barenboim praised the grant for ensuring “that composers would have a voice in shaping the CSO’s programming well into the 21st century.” A CSO spokesperson said the orchestra expects to make an announcement about the next composer or composers to be involved before the end of the season. Presumably, this would be around the time Muti returns to the CSO in mid-June to conclude the current cycle of subscription concerts.
The MusicNOW@20 concert with Salonen featured all new works except for an austere chamber music “oldie” from 1997 suggested by Salonen – Related Rocks by Magnus Lindberg, a fellow Finn who once sat next to Salonen in counterpoint class. It was written for two percussion arrays, plus two pianists doubling on synthesizer, summoning a muscular retro impression of an era when a much lower bit-rate defined imagination’s forward edge.
The most substantial piece on the program was Adams’ hypnotic new Chamber Concerto, with violinist Karen Gromyo as its terrific champion. Likely to get additional performances soon, the concerto is a big-hearted essay of 30 minutes that begins with the violin singing pretty much alone. Gradually, other instruments chime in as if individually compelled to respond, with flexible lines that seem endlessly varied and natural.
Adams’ concerto is quirky and modern, yet with a Baroque feel. It must be fun to play – and not only for the soloist – made up as it is of aggressive little dramas within larger ones, and drawing as it does upon a range of styles including minimalist repetition, post-impressionistic colors, and the sly pull of jazz against quasi-antique ways.
The music seems human rather than heroic, with underlying gentle humor. It’s even goofy fun at times as the instruments befriend and volley. Adams wrote it for two flutes doubling on alto and piccolo, clarinet, bass-clarinet doubling on contrabass, three violins, viola, two cellos, string bass, percussion, and – get this – a pianist doubling on the vintage keys of a Fender Rhodes.
No problem hearing the soloist, thanks to this blend. There was a lot going on, but also a clear arc shaping each of the five movements and a profound sense of coming full circle, with Gromyo commanding in the solo spot and Salonen keeping the momentum in elastic flux all the way to the end.
Ogonek’s The Water Cantos [notes from quiet places] is also scored for an unusual band – a big part for piano (Daniel Schlosberg) plus flute doubling on piccolo and alto, two clarinets doubling on bass, percussion, piano, string bass, and four (!) cellos. The composer said in an interview for the orchestra’s website that she couldn’t get the sound of the cello quartet in the opening bars of Rossini’s William Tell Overture out of her head after hearing it so many times, in city after city, on a CSO tour. If it’s the kind of essential trivia that will haunt her Wikipedia entry forever, it’s also in the service of an appealing new opus that is expansive, poised, and richly colored.
Ogonek wrote that The Water Cantos summons the harsh beauty of landscapes that she has known in northern New Mexico and southern Oregon: ice-coated ash trees in winter, a river in the high forest, an imposing rock formation on the Oregon coast, and the arid O’Keefe country. One did not need her notes to appreciate the glistening brightness of the first movement, or the abrupt, maze-like turns of the second. The third and fourth movements were particularly satisfying for the sublimated intensity of crushing power barely contained and the parched, ephemeral cackle of a bone–dry wit. The tone poem matched up beautifully with a 2013 octet called Ró by the Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdóttir – as perfect a bit of sustained delicacy as any 11 minutes of music one could ever want to hear.
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.