Chicago Symphony’s new bicoastal composers find common musical ground

November 19, 2015
By Wynne Delacoma
Chicago Symphony Orchestra composers in residence Samuel Adams and Elizabeth Ogonek. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Chicago Symphony Orchestra composers in residence Samuel Adams and Elizabeth Ogonek. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Elizabeth Ogonek and Samuel Adams, the Chicago Symphony’s new composers-in-residence, seem deceptively like old friends. During a recent interview at Symphony Center, they were relaxed and quick with a smile or a laugh.

But Ogonek, 26, and Adams, 29, met less than a year ago in Chicago, shortly after their appointments were announced. Responsible for programming the CSO’s contemporary chamber music series, MusicNOW, which opens next Monday at the Harris Theater, Ogonek and Adams needed to get to know each other–and more importantly, each other’s musical tastes–quickly.

“We met each other for the first time in January, so that was interesting,” said Ogonek with a wry smile.

“We were faced with the task of curating a whole, entire season while also getting to know each other,’’ said Adams. “But the fact that those things overlapped made the process really wonderful. Despite the fact that we’re very different musical personalities and have totally different ideas about composition and life or whatever, we’re kind of looking in the same direction, or looking at the same objects from different directions.”

“Sam is from the West Coast,” said Ogonek. “I’m from the East Coast. We come from completely different musical upbringings, yet this season is very much a reflection of how we’re trying to synthesize those interests. And, at the same time, we’re beginning to tackle the kind of diversity that exists in music and celebrating that diversity.”

The CSO’s new composers-in-residence have built this season’s four MusicNOW concerts around themes. The November 23 opening concert focuses on composers who play with the idea of writing for strings. The program includes Glitch, a 2009 work for string quartet and electronics by Daniel Wohl, a Paris native now living in Brooklyn; Kaija Saariaho’s Petals, composed in 1988 for solo cello and electronics, and Law of Mosaics a 2009 piece for string orchestra by Chicago composer Ted Hearne.

Vocal music is in the spotlight March 7 in a concert titled “(Sub)text.” Vocalists Kate Soper and Agata Zubel each perform their own works: Soper’s Only the Words Themselves Mean What they Say, and Zubel’s Labyrinth with text by Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska. Soper is also the soloist in Katachi, a sextet by Eric Wubbels, and Ogonek’s Falling Up, based on poems by Shel Silverstein and Rimbaud, completes the program.

On May 9 soprano Tony Arnold will be soloist in Waterlines, a song cycle by Christopher Trapani about nature’s relentless power. The program’s other two works explore the idea of springtime and renewal: Wald by Hans Abrahamsen and a sinfonietta by Clara Iannotta, Intent on Resurrection—Spring or Some Such Thing.

MusicNOW’s season closes June 6 with repertory inspired by the idea of light. It includes a world premiere by Adams, and Donald Nally leads vocal ensembles from Northwestern University in excerpts from Fjoloy, a choral work by Brooklyn-based composer Qasim Ali Naqvi. Pianist Vicky Chow is soloist in Tristan Perich’s hour-long Surface Image.

Ogenek and Adams shaped MusicNOW’s season after many long-distance hours at the computer.

“I was still living in London,” said Ogonek, “and Sam was living in the Bay Area and we would talk every Saturday on Skype. We started building this huge list of pieces we were interested in for some reason. We would continually add to it and then find pieces that we both liked and build around that.”

“We had weekly Skype sessions,” said Adams. “In the process of curating, certain pieces were speaking to each other. There was a magnetism between works. Once we saw these connections, the final programs became clear.”

A native of Minnesota, Ogonek was four when her family moved to New York. Her mother is a church organist, and Ogonek started out studying piano but began composing in high school. She earned her undergraduate degree at Indiana University, her masters at the University of Southern California and went to London for doctoral studies at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

In September Ogonek moved to Oberlin, Ohio, to begin a two-year appointment as visiting professor of composition at the Oberlin Conservatory.

“The fact that I’ve lived in a lot of different places has influenced my music,” said Ogonek. “That movement, those transitions, this idea of transience, have influenced the way I think about my music now, the direction it could go in.”

Adams, the son of the celebrated American composer John Adams, grew up near Berkeley, California

“I grew up playing classical piano, the ‘rep,’ so to speak,” said Adams, whose shock of curly hair and oversized glasses, give him a quietly mischievous air. “But I also had a very strong interest in improvisation and jazz, also electronic music, and—I know this is a very scary term–noise music.

“I’m a kid of the ‘90s, so I grew up consuming music on an iPod and having immediate access to everything. I think my parents saw a kernel of musicality when I was younger, and they definitely encouraged me to pursue that. But when I was a teen-ager and I told them I didn’t want to do music, they were equally supportive.” 

Ogonek and Adams agree that, as Adams put it, “Being a 21st century composer is very different from being a 20th century composer.”

Until recently, in the U.S., classical composers usually supported themselves by teaching composition at more or less prestigious institutions. In the 1970s when compositional styles became more diverse, they felt compelled to adhere to one orthodoxy or another—12-tone style or not 12-tone style.

All of those certainties have vanished. Young composers now write pieces for myriad reasons—a friend needs a score for a dance they’re choreographing, somebody else is looking for background music for a video. They’re as apt to write for an art installation as a string quartet or—far less often—a symphony orchestra.

“I think on a piece-by-piece basis,” said Adams, “every performance context is very different. It’s so different from writing electronic music that’s going to be used for a dance performance or an installation—creating an hour-long piece that will be performed in a dark space, which is what I’m doing right now. I think of my voice as being very flexible and can adjust to various environments.”

“One of the most exciting things about this process is being open to somebody else’s taste,” said Ogonek. “That’s one way we’ve been able to achieve this sense of diversity that’s so important to this MusicNOW season.

“Sam suggested pieces I’d never heard before, and I hope I suggested pieces he never heard before. It’s coming from these opposite poles that allows us to look at the whole breadth of contemporary music.”

The CSO’s first MusicNOW concert of the season take place 7 p.m. Monday at the Harris Theater.  The program includes Daniel Wohl’s Glitch, Kaija Saariaho’s Petals and Ted Hearne’s Law of Mosaics.; 312-294-3000.

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