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The Chicago Composers Orchestra Makes a Splashy Hire

Allen Tinkham, the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras’ music director, will hold the reins at the new-music orchestra.

Photo: Courtesy of Allen Tinkham

Conductor Allen Tinkham, the well-respected music director of the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestras, adds a new music directorship to his résumé this season: the Chicago Composers Orchestra. The CCO, founded in 2010, plays orchestral music by living composers, with a special focus on Chicagoans, allowing composers a rare chance to hear their work for full orchestra instead of the more-common chamber groups. Tinkham, 41, told us about his new gig and his view of the music world.

Have you worked with the CCO before?

I did end up guest-conducting a concert last season. It was a last-minute thing for me. Matthew [Kasper, the CCO’s outgoing music director] had to leave town suddenly, so I had only four hours notice for the rehearsal. Brian [Baxter, CCO’s co–artistic director and fellow CYSO staffer with Tinkham] called me about lunchtime and said, “We could really use someone. It’s three pieces you’ve never heard before by three composers you’ve never heard of.”

What are you excited about with the CCO?

More work is always better. Honestly, I’m so excited to be invited to be music director of a composers orchestra. New music is new ideas. I can’t think of another time in world history when it was more important for us to have open ears and open minds. I think contemporary music encourages that in us, consciously and subconsciously.

A lot of people don’t approach new music with open ears, though.

I can certainly see why some of this music is difficult to penetrate for folks who are new to [it]. As long as you come to it with an open mind, wanting to share the composer’s feelings and ideas, then you are guaranteed to get something out of it. The first thing I do when I don’t immediately like or even get a piece is listen to it again. Every time I learn a new piece it changes how I feel about every other piece of music I’ve ever learned. It’s all on a continuum, it’s all important, and all interesting.

There’s a tendency to look at, say, Beethoven like the music is a monument chiseled out of a mountain rather than communication from a person to other people.

I couldn’t agree more. I think that’s one of the big things that turn people off to all classical music. We like to put things in boxes—Classical era, Romantic era. It is all people.

How did you come to love new music?

A few years ago in the CYSO, we did a 2001: A Space Odyssey program, doing music from the Kubrick film. One of the pieces was [György] Ligeti’s Atmospheres. While I was studying the piece, I was in New York. There was an exhibit at the MoMA about abstract expressionism. I’d seen it many times before in books, but I hadn’t ever seen a Jackson Pollock live. The connection with Ligeti’s Atmospheres made itself in my brain. For some reason, it just clicked for me that day. I just realized that I loved abstract expressionism, and I realized I love minimalist and post-minimalist music. Now, with people like [the composer] John Luther Adams, I can listen to that stuff endlessly. Philip Glass—it’s not very dignified to like Philip Glass. Orchestral musicians say, “That’s just smoke and mirrors.” But once you get it, you get it.

Do you expect to recruit musicians who age out of the CYSO for the CCO?

Oh, absolutely. There already are people that play in the CCO that I remember from the CYSO. It’s very fulfilling to see them around town, working as musicians when I knew them from the CYSO.

Or just working as musicians.

Yeah, you could stop that sentence right there.

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