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Meet the Chicago Symphony’s Newest Composers-in-Residence

Samuel Adams and Elizabeth Ogonek are bringing some exciting new music to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Samuel Adams and Elizabeth Ogonek   Photo: Courtesy of Todd Rosenberg

As the Chicago Symphony Orchestra enters its 125th anniversary season, the mind goes a bit sideways considering what tenacity, grit, and vision it must have taken for this world-class orchestra to weather a pair of world wars, a Great Depression, a Great Recession, and the closing of Hot Doug’s. It is an estimable feat, and the city’s prestige is hinged in no small way on its quality and longevity.

The mind does a full-on pretzel, though, when considering the programming in store—which is, um, less than adventurous. The music in question is no doubt deserving, and does include the odd contemporary score, but an opportunity to showcase new pieces not yet chiseled onto the obelisk of Classical Music has been forfeited…except for the recent knighting of two new Mead composers-in-residence, Elizabeth Ogonek and Samuel Adams. As stewards of the MusicNOW contemporary music series, the duo is reinvigorating the CSO with a fresh roster of forward-looking, weird, imaginative works.

As ambassadors for the music of today in Chicago, Ogonek and Adams are affable, disarming, and on-fire for introducing the curious and the skeptical to the kaleidoscopic dimension of new music. I spoke with them recently about what it’s like to meet superstar music director Riccardo Muti, the preposterous proposition of having one of the world’s greatest orchestras as your house band, and what shenanigans they’ve got the MusicNOW ensemble up to in the coming season.

Landing a CSO composer-in-residence slot is quite the career windfall. Tell us what it’s like to get that fated phone call.

Elizabeth Ogonek: I remember it was a very cold night in London, and I was getting ready to head home to New York for Christmas. I was so stunned that I didn’t even have a reaction for something like three days, and then it hit me that I was going to be writing for this incredible orchestra. I felt like I was five years old.

Samuel Adams: I was surprised. Composer-in-residence positions typically go to middle or late-career artists. I am very young and still trying to figure out so many things about making music.

Meeting Maestro Muti is a key element of the interview process. I would imagine that face time with one of classical music’s icons must be a little overwhelming?

Adams: I had never had the opportunity to hear Muti conduct before my first CSO-related trip to Chicago last fall. My flight was delayed, so I arrived at Symphony Center just in time to hear the third movement of Debussy’s La Mer and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. The performance was incredible. I went to his dressing room to introduce myself, approaching him the way I try to approach everyone—with openness and curiosity. He told me to greet him with a “good evening” instead of a “hello.” I think he was poking me to see how I’d react, so I poked him back with a, “but I thought we were in Chicago?!” I’m not sure how he took that, but he did keep glancing at my Italian shoes with an approving look, which I think was a good sign.

Ogonek: I met him at a concert hall in Geneva, Switzerland while the CSO was on tour. The seats were connected, bolted to the floor, and I was so nervous that my knees were shaking throughout the concert. I was convinced I was shaking the entire row, vibrating people in their chairs. I did manage to keep my wits about me when I met the maestro, though.

Now that you’ve gotten the gig, one of your primary duties is to program the CSO’s MusicNOW series. In speaking with many new music fans and players around the city, I can tell you they are especially excited to see what you have programmed for this season, which they consider a new direction from years past. What is your goal, as you choose the music for Chicago’s highest-visibility vehicle for contemporary music?

Adams: The goal in curating our first season is to showcase the diversity of today’s boldest artists while not building scattershot programs. We came up with archetypal themes that allow the works within each concert to connect on a level that transcends their individual aesthetics. It’s our hope that audiences will experience each concert as a question mark rather than a thesis.

Ogonek: When we first started talking about our first season with MusicNOW, we agreed on focusing in on up-and-coming, emerging composers. This is such an extraordinary opportunity, to work with such fine musicians, that we want to share it with other young composers, and I think the most exciting thing about contemporary music right now is just how many stylistic approaches are happening simultaneously. That is definitely reflected in our programming.

It seems that most young composers focus on chamber and solo pieces, given that access to an orchestra is rare. This position offers you access to a world-class orchestra. How does that change your approach to writing?

Adams: First, the bad news is that it’s true that there are few opportunities for composers to write for a full orchestra. The good news is that the culture is changing. Sure, the lion’s share of orchestral programming is still made up of well-known works by dead white men with furrowed brows, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that the production of new, exciting work is absolutely essential to the life of a musical institution in the 21st Century. Having access to the CSO is an insane privilege, and the fact that I have the opportunity to forge relationships with the musicians makes the residency particularly special. But the most important priority for me as a Mead Composer-in-Residence is the challenge of elevating the status and relevance of contemporary music.

Ogonek: The prospect of having Muti conducting my work is ridiculously exciting. The amazing thing about a job like this is that you are able to grow with the orchestra, getting to know the individual players and the nuances of this particular ensemble. This is a chance to write for these musicians as an ongoing collaborator, with interaction and feedback, which is an uncommon opportunity.

The Mead Composers-in-Residence typically become fixtures at contemporary music concerts around the city, beyond Symphony Center and MusicNOW. As you join this community, what strikes you as unique about the scene here?

Adams: It’s a little hard to say since I’m such a newbie—but if I may speak in generalizations, it seems very tight-knit. There is a palpable centeredness, which is great. The Chicago new music scene is also very welcoming. I’m really just now getting to know the city, and I love it.

Ogonek: I think that Chicago is the next major hub for new music in the United States. It has some of the best performers and ensembles that I’ve encountered. It is a community that is so supportive of composers, of all different styles, and I think that is most important aspect of making a scene vibrant.

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