OC chief Leah Williams finds a love for classical music via indie rock

Overture Council President Leah Williams

At the beginning of the 2023-24 Season, Leah Williams became president of the Overture Council, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association’s group for young professionals. Originally from Waukomis, a town in north central Oklahoma, Williams moved to Chicago for college two decades ago and currently works as a director of strategy at Discover Financial Services, focusing on the company’s payments network. When she’s not seeing the orchestra, you might find her knitting, attending other live music performances, reading or watching “Columbo.” She lives in the Noble Square neighborhood of Chicago with her partner of 14 years, Tim.

In the following interview, Williams shares her history with the CSO and her hopes for the Overture Council during her time as president.  

What inspires your love of music?

I’m not sure — I can’t think of a time when music wasn’t a big part of my life. That being said, it took me until my late 20s/early 30s to engage more with classical music. My mom strongly preferred AC/DC to J.S. Bach, and there was no orchestra at my middle school, just marching band. I spent my teen years listening to a lot of indie rock from the Merge and Matador labels (to be honest, this is still a huge part of what I listen to now). My path to classical was: indie rock > weird indie rock that was close to contemporary classical > contemporary classical > classical generally.

What drew you to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra?

The CSO features a world-class group of musicians playing a diverse repertory — what’s not to love? I’d gone a few times off and on over the years, but in 2017, I decided to subscribe. My partner had also historically attended with his great aunt, and we were lucky enough to get second-row seats that were close to where her subscriber seats had been.

How long have you been a member of the Overture Council, and why did you decide to join?

I’ve been a member since 2019, right after I left management consulting for a less travel-intensive career. I joke that I joined the OC because I didn’t feel comfortable with my sudden influx of free time, but I also wanted to get more involved in the CSOA and meet other young professionals who were passionate about classical music.

What’s one of your most meaningful memories during your time in the OC so far?

I have so many, but one that stands out is our 2021 Chanticleer & Champagne event, which we hold annually after a Chanticleer performance. It was my second year as our core member activities chair. In typical years, this would involve planning member events like the season kickoff and end-of-season party, but due to COVID-19, most of our events had been online, or weather permitting, outside. The Chanticleer event was one of the first in-person, indoor gatherings we had held in nearly two years; it was just wonderful to see so many other members after such a long break.

What motivated you to serve as president of the OC?

I had an amazing time as a member of the Overture Council Executive Committee when I was the core member activities chair and wanted to continue to contribute. I thought my professional background in helping high-performing teams simplify and innovate would lend itself to the president role.

What are your hopes for the OC during your time as president?

I want to continue to build on our strong foundation — we have an amazing group of leaders on our executive committee and on our committees. This year, our activities-focused committees are continuing our strong slate of programming — including Soundpost, our flagship event — as well as events where we engage with other CSOA groups and other young professionals’ groups across Chicago. Our amazing communications and social-media committees ensure we have a place on members’ calendars and make it easy for members to engage with the OC and understand the value of membership.

Next season will be the 15th anniversary of the Overture Council, and we’re getting started on planning for that!

Is there a concert or event you’re especially looking forward to this season?

I am EXTREMELY excited about our Soundpost programs for the year, which will be announced soon. The executive committee is looking to diversify the type of events we do, and this year’s Soundpost schedule will demonstrate that.

I’m excited for every concert I’m going to this year, but as a new music fan, CSO MusicNOW is always a favorite. Jessie Montgomery’s curation of this series during her time as Mead Composer-in-Residence has been terrific, and I’m looking forward to the first event on Dec. 3.

Why do you believe it’s important for volunteers, patrons and donors to support the Chicago Symphony Orchestra?

A quote from Yo-Yo Ma has been top of mind for me this year: “We are all cultural citizens, and culture will be the engine of our reconstruction, as it always has been.” I find it meaningful to support artistic institutions that are making the place I live better — long before I was a regular at Symphony Center, I used to volunteer for the Oklahoma Festival of Books and the Old Town School of Folk Music in Lincoln Square — and it’s a pleasure to play a little part in encouraging folks to support our world-class orchestra.