James Lee III: “Sukkot” goes to Pittsburgh

On March 22, 2024, the Pittsburgh Symphony presents the regional premiere of James Lee III’s Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula, conducted by Juanjo Mena (pictured below). The ten-minute orchestral work was commissioned by the Sphinx Organization and premiered in October 2011 at the New World Symphony, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. Lee describes the piece as “…a festive work for orchestra;” and since its premiere, it has been performed by numerous ensembles including the Atlanta Symphony, Louisiana Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, Cincinnati Symphony and Chicago Symphony. Subsequent performances follow on the 23rd and 24th, as Lee serves as composer-in-residence during the series and participates in pre-concert talks.

Mary Persin, Pittsburgh’s Vice President of Artistic Planning, shares some thoughts about programming Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula. “One of the main themes that runs across our 23/24 classical season is that of New Perspectives. I am constantly on the search for today’s most imaginative and exciting creators—the new and most dynamic artists, conductors and composers that we can present on the Heinz Hall stage. I especially love to discover composers who have distinctive individual voices and their own unique musical language.

“One of these recent discoveries for me was the music of James Lee III. I listened to his Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula and was immediately taken by the vivid use of color, the raw, rhythmic energy, the sweeping lyricism and bold storytelling. I was aware that our guest conductor, Juanjo Mena, had led the work on several occasions and suggested to him that it would be a great curtain opener for our program. Maestro Mena immediately agreed. From the opening brass fanfare to the blazing ending, I can’t wait to hear this work come to life with the rich energy, power and brilliance of our Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra musicians! Incidentally, I had the pleasure to meet James this past spring when the Pacifica Quartet came to Pittsburgh as part of the Chamber Music Pittsburgh series. On the program was James’ wonderful Clarinet Quintet that the Pacifica performed together with clarinetist Anthony McGill. It was such a joy to hear the quintet and also get to meet together with James.”

Persin adds, “I’m really looking forward to our concerts this month which will not only mark the Pittsburgh premiere of Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula, but will also mark the very first time that the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra performs James’ music. We’re especially honored that James will join us across the week to participate in an array of activities. As part of his composer residency, James will be together with us for the rehearsals, participate in our Clef Notes conversations prior to the concerts, speak to the audience from stage as part of the concerts, as well as visit Carnegie Mellon University to work with their talented composition students. We’re greatly looking forward to having James with us!”