CHICAGO — The age-old conundrum of program music surged to mind with the world premiere of Jessie Montgomery’s Transfigure to Grace, played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on May 11 under music director Riccardo Muti. Although Montgomery, the CSO’s composer in residence, subtitles her vibrant and adroitly crafted new work Suite for Orchestra, it is by her own account fundamentally and expressly a tone poem, or anyway a tableau, commingling ideas historical and spiritual.
Transfigure to Grace, commissioned by the CSO, is a reworking of Montgomery’s 2019 ballet Passage, created for choreographer Claudia Schreier and the Dance Theatre of Harlem to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the first arrival of enslaved Africans in the New World. The original title Passage refers to the so-called Middle Passage, the long sea journey from Africa to America during which great numbers of the enslaved perished. In its recurrent underlying rhythmic figurations, Transfigure to Grace evokes both the timelessness of the sea as passive, fateful highway and, one might infer, the perpetual, irrepressible accountability that attaches to the horrors of enslavement.
Reading the composer’s own commentary on the work and then hearing it, I couldn’t help making the leap to August Wilson’s play Gem of the Ocean and its ancient character Aunt Ester, who finds spiritual grace in an oceanic City of Bones — a clear reference to that devouring Middle Passage. But the difference between Wilson’s concept and Montgomery’s brings me back to the aforementioned conundrum: A tone poem’s specific “narrative” subsists only if we follow an external program; it cannot reside in the notes alone. Leonard Bernstein liked to make that point using Ein Heldenleben as his example: Strauss spelled out its narrative, but someone else might just as persuasively overlay a story about Superman. Ultimately, any instrumental work must stand and communicate without that arbitrary guide.
As a defined construct, the piece was effective, vivid, evocative. Transfigure to Grace is laid out as a series of brief episodes separated by terse French horn interludes, the whole arc connected by rhythmic motifs suggestive of the rolling sea. In a notably conservative, one might even say Romantic, harmonic idiom typical of the composer, this transfiguration pulls one in with mesmerizing constancy. Its consummation — the title’s grace — comes in a grand, sudden crescendo that ends the work as if on the foamy cap of a mighty wave, a denouement as curious as it is surprising.
Take away the prescribed imagery, and Transfigure to Grace becomes more problematic. Without the forgiveness, or distraction, of its spiritual plan, the work’s antecedents leap to the fore: the down-home melodic lines of Copland, the piquant harmonic turns of Bernstein, the perky dance rhythms of middle-period Stravinsky. In her embroidery of Passage into a work for full orchestra, Montgomery has shown a real mastery of intricate structure and a deft hand at orchestration. Muti and the Chicago Symphony delivered a supple, articulate, richly hued performance. What was not especially in evidence was a new and distinctive voice.
The rest of the concert program was Muti and the CSO in their glorious element: a radiant, seductive turn through Wagner’s Tannhäuser Overture and a performance of Rachmaninoff’s grandiose Symphony No. 2 in E minor that was spectacular in every dimension.