A transitional season for the CSO brings Mahler, new music and much more

Jessie Montgomery takes a bow after the world premiere by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra of her "Hymn for Everyone" in April 2022. This fall, she begins her third season as CSO Mead Composer-in-Residence.

Todd Rosenberg Photography

Though Riccardo Muti steps down in June after 13 years as music director, the maestro will maintain a significant presence in the just announced 2023-24 Season of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

In addition to helming American and European tours, Muti will lead the CSO’s first three programs — seven concerts from Sept. 21 through 30, including a gala program tied to the annual Symphony Ball. It will feature a Muti specialty, opera, with four instrumental excerpts.

Perhaps most notable, Muti will conduct the world premiere of Philip Glass’ The Triumph of Octagon in concerts Sept. 28-30. The commission came after Muti and the CSO in February 2022 performed the Symphony No. 11 by the famed 86-year-old composer, who remains as vibrant and productive as ever.

The season will focus on the works of Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), a composer known for his probing emotionalism and innovative orchestrations. The CSO will perform the composer’s First, Second and Fourth symphonies. Selections from his Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn), song settings of German folk poems, will be the centerpiece of Oct. 12-15 concerts with baritone Christian Gerhaher under Jaap van Zweden, music director of the New York Philharmonic. Rounding out this Mahler overview will be his rarely heard Blumine in  concerts Oct. 26-28 led by Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider.

Central to his duties as music director, Muti led 10 weeks of subscription and special concerts each season. Because that position will be open in 2023-24, the CSO artistic staff has engaged more guest conductors than usual to complete the schedule. Nearly 30 podium talents from around the world will be featured, ranging from familiar veterans like James Conlon and Semyon Bychkov to two up-and-comers in their CSO debuts, Gemma New and Elim Chan.

Along with the parade of guest conductors will come the CSO’s usual array of top visiting soloists, from classical stars such as violinist Joshua Bell and pianist Yuja Wang to newcomers like Seong-Jin Cho, the 2015 winner of the Chopin International Piano Competition. He will join the CSO with New for Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 on Feb. 8 and 10.

Two artists affiliated with the CSO will return in 2023-24. Jessie Montgomery will complete her third and final year as Mead Composer-in-Residence. As part of her duties, she curates the CSO’s contemporary music series, CSO MusicNOW (with programming and dates to be announced later).

Violinist Hilary Hahn ranks among classical music’s most imaginative and exciting performers. The CSO has added a third year to her tenure as its Artist-in-Residence, and she will join the orchestra Dec. 7-9 in Brahms’ Violin Concerto. Musical America recently named Hahn and Montgomery as its artist and composer of the year respectively, providing the latest evidence of the elevated place that these two hold in the classical-music world.

As part of Montgomery’s residency, the CSO commissioned three works from the composer, who is also a violinist, educator and activist. The latest of those creations, a concerto for Cynthia Yeh, the CSO’s principal percussion, is set for concerts May 30-31 and June 1, with guest conductor Manfred Honeck.

Continuing a commitment to new music that dates to the CSO’s earliest days, two other world premieres will be performed next season: Nov. 9-11, Christopher Theofanidis’ Indigo Heaven, and March 21-24, Lowell Liebermann’s Flute Concerto No. 2.

In addition, the season will contain at least one American premiere and the first-time CSO performances of an assortment of past and present works, such as C.P.E. Bach’s Sinfonia in E-flat Major. It will be part of an all-Bach program March 28-29, led by Robert Chen that will feature the CSO concertmaster with Principal Oboe William Welter as soloists in J.S. Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin in C Minor.

Among these CSO debuts are two notable Chicago premieres: The Elements, commissioned by Bell, who will serve as soloist during the June 13-15 concerts. He invited five composers — Jake Heggie, Jennifer Higdon, Edgar Meyer, Jessie Montgomery and Kevin Puts — to write one of its five sections, which are inspired by the classical elements of fire, air, ether, water and earth. 

The following week, guest conductor Lahav Shani will lead the local premiere of Mason Bates’ Piano Concerto with Daniil Trifonov as soloist. Bates served as the CSO’s Mead Composer-in-Residence in 2010-15. This concerto was commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and San Francisco Symphony for Trifonov.

Here are other notable CSO programs in 2023-24:

Nov. 16-19, violinist Leonidas Kavakos and conductor Philippe Jordan. Kavakos will make his second solo appearance next season in the Violin Concerto No. 2 by Karol Szymanowski, a Polish modernist whose music has enjoyed a resurgence in recent decades. For the rest of the program, Jordan, music director of the Vienna State Opera, will lead the original 1867 version of Mussorgsky’s A Night on Bald Mountain and Stravinsky’s transformative ballet The Rite of Spring.

Feb. 15 and 17-18, cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason and conductor Paavo Järvi. The career of English soloist Kanneh-Mason has skyrocketed since he won the 2016 BBC Young Musician competition and subsequently became a Decca Classics recording artist. He will be featured in one of the most popular and best-known works for cello by English composer Edward Elgar. Also on the program are Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 5 and Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3. 

April 11-13, soprano Masabane Cecilia Rangwanasha, mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon, tenor Issachah Savage, baritone Lucas Meachem, Chicago Symphony Chorus and conductor James Conlon. Felix Mendelssohn was an admirer and champion of the great Baroque composers J.S. Bach and George Frideric Handel, so it is hardly surprising that his 1846 oratorio, Elijah, was modeled on their works, albeit in an updated Romantic style. Music director of the Los Angeles Opera, Conlon knows a thing or so about large-scale vocal works and will be on the podium for these performances.

April 25-27, Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis and conductor Giancarlo Guerrero. The CSO and Marsalis’ Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra team up for this program, which includes Dmitri Shostakovich’s Suite for Variety Orchestra No. 1 and Marsalis’ All-American Pep from Swing Symphony. Commissioned in 2010, the Marsalis work draws inspiration from famed American composers such as Ives, Gershwin, Copland, Bernstein and Ellington.

June 6-8 and 11, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet and conductor Stéphane Denève. Thibaudet, a regular CSO collaborator, joins the French-born Denève, music director of the St. Louis Symphony, in Camille Saint-Saëns’ Piano Concerto No. 5 (Egyptian). Also on this all-French program will be Lili Boulanger’s D’un matin de printemps (A Spring Morning), Claude Debussy’s Ibéria and Maurice Ravel’s iconic Boléro.