Home News In brilliant premiere, CSO composer-in-residence goes out with a bang

In brilliant premiere, CSO composer-in-residence goes out with a bang


Speaking to the Tribune in December, Chicago Symphony composer-in-residence Jessie Montgomery teasingly called 2024 her “year of percussion.” And oh, how it is.

Montgomery rang it in with “Study No. 1,” premiered by Third Coast Percussion on May 3. Performers blew through surgical tubing into their drums to change pitch; later, synchronized stickwork recreated the adrenalized energy of drumline music. Far more enthralling than its academic title might imply, the “study” was an astounding freshman outing for Montgomery, who, before that premiere, had never written a work for percussion.

Going from that seven-minute work to a 20-minute percussion concerto, though? Only someone with Montgomery’s élan makes that quantum leap sound easy, as the premiere of her “Procession” did Thursday night, under conductor Manfred Honeck.

It helps when Cynthia Yeh is your muse. The principal percussionist of the CSO since 2007, Yeh is the cool head keeping things in time in the back of the ensemble, but her presence is commanding both in and out of the limelight. On the CSO’s recent Europe tour, music director emeritus Riccardo Muti proudly recounted a review that said Yeh’s terrifying bass drum hits in Verdi’s Requiem, a CSO calling card, “still echo” in Vienna’s Musikverein.

Yeh’s christening performance of “Procession” will echo here, too. For these concerts, Yeh gracefully alternates between two percussion setups: one next to the conductor’s podium — with a vintage American Legion kick drum from her personal collection — and one behind the violins.

Like “Study No. 1” before it, the concerto is cogently crafted, its five sections linked by recurring themes. The main theme, a declamatory seven-note figure, later becomes the basis for a fantastical cadenza on vibraphone, played poetically by Yeh. As in “Study No. 1,” bent pitches become a motif in “Procession”: in the third movement, Yeh alters the pitch of a djembe by sweeping the drumhead with one hand and rapping it with the other, and winds take up sliding pitches in the final movement. (Listen, too, for the moment just before the end when some brass are asked to exhale through their instruments, creating a creepily disembodied effect in live performance.)

“Procession” makes hard-rocking use of a drum set, more often spotted in a rock arena or jazz bandstand than a classical performance. But leave it to Yeh to make a drum set sing. She phrased the turbulent kit parts opening and closing the concerto with a melodist’s touch. In a delightful interlude at “Procession’s” middle, piccolo players Jennifer Gunn and Yevgeny Faniuk stand up to join Yeh in a marching band-inspired interlude. (Yeh also leaned into the visual spectacle of it all, clad on Thursday in a glittery, sleeveless jumpsuit.)

Principal percussionist Cynthia Yeh plays the djembe in the CSO-commissioned, world-premiere performance of CSO Mead Composer-in-Residence Jessie Montgomery's "Procession" with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (Todd Rosenberg Photography)
Principal percussionist Cynthia Yeh plays the djembe in the CSO-commissioned, world-premiere performance of CSO Mead Composer-in-Residence Jessie Montgomery’s “Procession” with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (Todd Rosenberg Photography)

Honeck’s command of the new score was thorough and articulate, and never more appreciated than in the second movement’s breakneck, mixed-meter dash. Gunn and Faniuk made stylish work of those diabolically hard piccolo parts, and sounded like musical twins to boot. Sadly, these concerts are among the last opportunities to celebrate Faniuk’s artistry: the assistant principal flutist was not granted tenure and will leave the CSO at the end of the Ravinia season.

The only other work on Thursday’s program, Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7, poses its own percussion question: to cymbal crash or not to cymbal crash? As with the Austrian composer’s other symphonies, this one exists in many editions, some that omit a climactic cymbal crash in the second movement and others that include it.

Thursday’s performance kept it, in all its hair-raising glory. But in that climax and others, Honeck and the CSO’s Symphony No. 7 reached dizzying heights not by brute force but by brilliance. A svelte sound kept this Bruckner light on its feet and, occasionally, even whimsical.

This performance made the rare argument for Bruckner-as-ensemble-drama, à la Mahler, rather than treating it like a symphonic monument. Where some see a stoic, this performance found Bruckner’s humanity. Honeck seemed, at times, to have assigned personalities to various sections: scampy strings in the finale theme, villainous low brass in third- and fourth-movement outbursts.

Wagner, Bruckner’s role model, coined the term “endless melody” to describe the constant lyrical flow of his operas. Though his musical language owes much to Wagner, Bruckner wasn’t an “endless melody” guy. His symphonies are segmented in the extreme, their changes in volume and mood abrupt, even shocking.

Honeck’s leadership did the nigh impossible: it found the endless melody in Bruckner. He kept a clear-eyed sense of the line, no matter how long — in the phrase, in the movement, even in the entire hour-plus-long symphony. Counterintuitive as it may seem, he achieved that sweep by letting his pace ebb and flow, choosing tempos that always served the melody rather than the other way around.

Brass inevitably wins the day in Bruckner. Some rough edges in the third movement aside, that section was richly blended and sonorous on Thursday — especially its saturnine choir of Wagner tubas, led nobly by Daniel Gingrich.

Conductor Manfred Honeck leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Bruckner's Symphony No. 7. (Todd Rosenberg Photography)
Conductor Manfred Honeck leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Bruckner’s Symphony No. 7. (Todd Rosenberg Photography)

Given the scene in the hall on Thursday night, with a freshly commissioned and ecstatically received new work, you’d think new music was in good hands at the CSO.

You’d be wrong. Hours before, the organization announced its leanest MusicNOW yet: just two concerts, curated by Daniel Bernard Roumain and Jimmy López Bellido.

The silver lining is that Roumain and López Bellido are gifted composers and known quantities around here: their music has appeared at both the CSO and Lyric Opera in recent seasons. But it only adds marginally (one, by Roumain) to the puny number of premieres next season. Nor will either take on a role even remotely akin to a composer-in-residence — and if the CSO’s recent equivocation is any indication, it’s likely that role will remain empty until Klaus Mäkelä arrives as music director in 2027.

So, enjoy this weekend’s concerts while you can. Programs like this are about to get much more scarce at 220 S. Michigan.

Montgomery & Bruckner 7,” 7:30 p.m. June 1 at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; tickets $35-$275.

Daniel Bernard Roumain: Voices of Migration & Innovation,” 3 p.m. Nov. 24 and “Jimmy López Bellido: Inner Dialogues,” 3 p.m. March 23 at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; tickets go on sale Aug. 7.

Hannah Edgar is a freelance critic.

The Rubin Institute for Music Criticism helps fund our classical music coverage. The Chicago Tribune maintains editorial control over assignments and content.

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