CHICAGO — Elijah Daniel Smith grew up with music in the city, going to concerts at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and studying classical music at the Chicago High School for the Arts.
Now, the composer is premiering an original piece in his hometown for the first time, opening the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s MusicNOW: Homecoming concert Monday.
“Scions of an Atlas,” a 21st century take on a baroque concerto-grosso performed by a 13-piece ensemble, was commissioned by the orchestra to kick off its 2021-22 season. Other composers with Chicago ties will present music Monday, including Ted Hearne, Nathalie Joachim and Jessie Montgomery, who begins a three-year tenure as the orchestra’s Mead composer-in-residence this season.
It will be a rare opportunity for Smith to debut a piece in Chicago, and in front of family, friends and teachers who supported his career.
“It wasn’t just me working hard on getting my career going,” Smith said. “It was my parents who sacrificed to do this, my friends who decided that they were gonna lend a hand when I needed it, my teachers, etc. So having this opportunity to bring it back home really is a dream come true.”
Becoming A Composer
Smith grew up in Albany Park. His mother briefly studied piano in college and put Smith and his sister into lessons as kids. He fell in love with music when he was 10 and his sister introduced him to metal band Trivium.
“That was the first moment, sort of like musical epiphany moment, that I had where I realized I fell in love with music immediately,” Smith said. “And that sort of was the first time that I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
With his mom’s encouragement, Smith was accepted into the classical music program at Chicago High School for the Arts in Humboldt Park in the middle of the school year. He enrolled despite not knowing how to read music at the time, meaning he dove into intensive music theory and history classes to catch up.
After initial culture shock, Smith fell in love with the school and decided to take classical music seriously, he said.
“Having the mentorship of the faculty there really made a big difference,” Smith said. “I had some teachers that made me really feel as though if I wanted to do this, this was something that I could do.”
Tina Boyer Brown, the artistic director and creative writing department head of ChiArts, was one of the founding members of the school when it opened in 2009. Boyer Brown was Smith’s English teacher during his junior year — and she isn’t surprised at his success.
“It’s thrilling. And really to have him focusing on music in new ways and to be a composer to be featured. And half his work performed by the [Chicago Symphony Orchestra] is just so exciting to find, to see our students making their way, both intellectually and creatively in the world,” Boyer Brown said.
Smith, a Black man, said ChiArts reinforced how important it is to keep the arts accessible to everyone.
“I think, for a long time, the term ‘high arts,’ which is kind of a problematic term to begin with, but it was one that was basically put up deliberately to create barriers and to create the separation between art made by white people — and then everyone else,” Smith said. “I think having a school like ChiArts accessible is unbelievably important, because it’s allowing kids who might not have any other opportunities or resources to work with to foster their artistic interests and abilities, it’s giving them an opportunity to really go someplace and hone in on that.”
Boyer Brown also thinks it’s important to keep schools like ChiArts accessible, especially in a career that can be expensive to pursue.
“Art is for everyone, right?” she said. “Everyone certainly should have access to [it], and every child deserves a robust arts education. At ChiArts, we are committed to the students, and we are committed to ensuring that regardless of students’ access to art, education or classes or training prior to getting into the school, you can get in.”
Smith graduated as a ChiArts vocal major in 2013; he has since changed his focus to composition. He’s studied at the Boston Conservatory and received a master’s from the Peabody Institute of The Johns Hopkins University. He is now studying composition at Princeton University, where he’s also a president’s fellow.
Smith regularly composes pieces for instruments he can’t play himself, including flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet and more. He also works in electronic instruments and synthesizers to create a less traditional sound.
“Scions of an Atlas” features several of these instruments. There are multiple tones sounding at once and “crazy”-sounding notes from different instruments that, Smith hopes, unfold like “how people would use a map or an atlas before going off on a journey,” he said.
“There’s a lot of technical terminology thrown around,” Smith said. “But I really want to stress that I hope that beyond anything else, the piece is enjoyable as a piece of music. So hopefully, people who go don’t feel as though they’re being excluded from anything, because I see a bunch of weird words on the page. And hopefully, they feel as though this is a piece that they can interact with and love.”
Tickets for the orchestra’s MusicNOW’s Homecoming concert on Monday are $20. They can be bought on its website.
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