Lee: “Sukkot” at the Chicago Symphony

From November 21 – 24, the Chicago Symphony performs James Lee III’s Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula conducted by Juanjo Mena. Commissioned by the Sphinx Organization, Lee’s ten-minute orchestral work premiered in October 2011 at the New World Symphony, led by Michael Tilson Thomas. Lee describes Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula as “…a festive work for orchestra,” and since its premiere, it has been performed many times including at four additional concert series during the fall 2019 season: the Louisiana Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony and the Cincinnati Symphony. On the 23rd, Lee participates in a pre-concert talk about his work.

Juanjo Mena; photo: Michael Novak; courtesy: Chicago Symphony

Juanjo Mena comments. “James’ score has been very warmly received by the CSO musicians. I [previously] worked with James in 2012 when we [at] the Cincinnati Symphony premiered Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula [for local audiences]. James has since developed the work, elaborated it, and it now works even better from a structural point of view, both in terms of the dynamics and tempi changes. It is wonderful to see this positive evolution of the work. It is a very powerful score and it’s very virtuosic, but every section of the CSO has embraced the challenge that it presents with meticulous detail. James was very happy after the rehearsals and we worked hard on the orchestra balance, which was necessary to achieve the organic line that James has created.”

“Having the Chicago Symphony Orchestra play my music is very special to me!” Lee observes. “Being from Southwest Michigan, Chicago is only a 90-minute drive away. This was the orchestra that I heard the most when I was growing up. As a teenager, I also enjoyed listening to the works of Richard Strauss and Bela Bartok performed by the CSO on the Deutsche Grammophon Label.  Besides the various symphonies that I heard performed by the CSO, I also heard the pianists Evgeny Kissin, Ivo Pogorelich, and Hélène Grimaud perform at Symphony Center/Orchestral Hall as part of the piano solo recital Sunday series.

“Considering the fame of the Chicago Symphony Brass Section, I was also delighted to hear that the orchestra would play ‘Sukkot’ because of the opening fanfares that I composed in the work. It was also at the CSO where I first heard Hannibal Lokumbe’s ‘African Portraits’ in 1992, which also featured the Morgan State University choir, where I have been on the faculty since 2005. I am extremely delighted that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Juanjo Mena have programmed my piece for the upcoming November concerts. It will also be an early birthday present for me since my birthday is on November 26.”