The Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s program notes for Rhapsody in Blue state unceremoniously that the ensemble performed the work with the composer, George Gershwin, in 1936. Imagine:  Gershwin himself on piano, playing what would later become one of the most recognizable and beloved works of the 20th century.

Decades later, the CSO  is still bringing together musicians and living composers—only these days they call it MusicNOW, and the audience is an essential third party in the experience. The composers, many of whom are under 40, appear in person and discuss their music onstage. Afterward, the crowd and the musicians congregate in the lobby for free pizza and beer. "Every single composer is a living composer—people who are still writing and present. That’s a real strength," says Martha Gilmer, the CSO’s vice president for artistic planning. The reception feels like you’ve scored an invitation to a friend of a friend’s cool, unpretentious party, and it’s part of MusicNOW’s growing appeal.

The 2009 series kicks off Monday, January 12th, with the Chicagoan Cliff Colnot conducting Herakles 2, by the German composer Heiner Goebbels, who takes traditional instrumentation—brass players, drums—and uses that ubiquitous hip-hop instrument, the sampler, to overlap music, words, and other sounds. Next up, on March 2nd, the series brings in the 34-year-old French composer Bruno Mantovani, whose music evokes the crowded streets of New York.

The programming concludes on June 8th with a world premiere by the 29-year-old laptop composer Jeremy Flower. It may not be Gershwin, or at least not yet, but audiences will have a chance to witness music history being made using the defining instrument of our times: the laptop.

On January 12th, MusicNOW will be at the Harris Theater (205 E. Randolph St.). Tickets are $20 ($12 for students) at

Illustration: Spoon Studios