Composer James Lee III remains ‘tonally centered’ for his ‘Sukkot’

James Lee III takes a bow after the CSO debut of his “Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula.”

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

James Lee III has written dozens of works during his career, but none has drawn more performances and recognition than his orchestral work Sukkot Through Orion’s Nebula.

In 2019 alone, the Louisiana Philharmonic performed it in September, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and NEWorks Philharmonic in Washington, D.C., played it during concerts in October, and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra will reprise the piece Nov. 15-16.

One of the work’s biggest milestones will come Nov. 21-24, when the Chicago Symphony Orchestra presents the local premiere: three performances in Orchestra Hall and a fourth as part of the ensemble’s annual series at Wheaton College.

When he got the news about the Chicago-area dates, Lee was thrilled, because he heard the orchestra often while growing up in Benton Harber in southwestern Michigan. He recalls his family making the 1½-hour car ride to attend concerts.

Lee suspects the piece was included on the program at least partly through the intervention of guest conductor Juanjo Mena, who led the Cincinnati Symphony’s first performances of the piece in 2012. “I think he must have liked the piece,” Lee said. At the same time, it didn’t hurt that Gustav Holst’s popular work, The Planets, is also on program, offering a celestial tie to the Orion’s Nebula referenced in Lee’s piece.

The composer believes the length of Sukkot — a little more than 10 minutes — makes it an ideal concert opener, which is how it will be presented in Chicago. He pointed to such other draws as its energy, harmonic language and “beautiful middle section.” “My musical language,” he said, “is such that even though there is enough tension there, it can still be appealing to an audience, and orchestras seem to like playing it.”

Sukkot was commissioned through the efforts of the Detroit-based Sphinx Organization, which is devoted to the advancement of young African-American and Latino musicians. A consortium of seven orchestras presented the original performances, starting with the October 2011 world premiere by the New World Symphony Orchestra in Miami Beach, Fla.

The work draws inspiration from the Old and New Testaments. “Sukkot” is a Hebrew word that means “Feast of Tabernacles,” a Jewish biblical holiday celebrated in mid-October. It is both an agricultural festival and a commemoration of the Exodus. The work also refers to Chapter 14 of Revelations, which marks a different kind of metaphorical harvest, and Orion’s Nebula, which is mentioned in the Book of Job.

“The muted brass, singing violins, percussion instruments, and woodwinds,” Lee writes in his program notes about section 5, “are employed to evoke celestial images of the Messiah coming down out of heaven through the Orion constellation first, the redeemed saints traveling through the constellation, and finally the New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven.”

In general, Lee draws textural inspiration from the music of 20th-century Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, and aspects of the rhythmic drive in his writing can be traced to 20th-century Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera. The composer describes his musical language as having tonal centers with, especially in his orchestral music, what he called “textured counterpoint,” where he adds layer upon layer of sound and from those textures instrumental solos emerge.

“For the most part, I’ve been tonally centered, but not really atonal,“ he said. ”One work that has a little more dissonance than others is my Chuphshah! Harriet’s Drive to Canaan, which the Baltimore Symphony commissioned in 2011.”

Writing for the Boston Classical Review following the Boston Symphony presentation of Sukkot in October, critic Aaron Keebaugh praised the work’s colorful sonorities and sweeping lyricism. “The 10-minute score,” he writes, “opens with a percussive burst flowed by shofar-like calls in the French horn and trumpets, which come to rest on stinging dissonances. At the work’s center, a lyrical theme cast high in the violins paints a serene picture. But the music never quite settles, as percussion figures supply a frenzied backdrop suggestive of the excitability of witnesses anticipating the second coming. Fanfares return at the end to bring Sukkot to a resolute conclusion.”