Composer Missy Mazzoli hopes to bring new voices to MusicNOW

Sun Oct 14, 2018 at 3:36 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

CSO composer in residence Missy Mazzoli will present her first MusicNOW concert Oct. 22 at the Harris Theater.

By any measure, 2018 is already a banner year for American composer Missy Mazzoli.

In June the Chicago Symphony Orchestra named Mazzoli its newest composer in residence. A few months earlier her latest opera, Proving Up, a brooding look at a homestead family in drought-stricken Nebraska after the Civil War, premiered at Washington National Opera to strong notices.

And on September 23, the Metropolitan Opera announced that it was commissioning operas from two women, Mazzoli and Jeanine Tesori. It was the first time the Met had commissioned women composers in its 135-year history. Only twice before had the Met even presented operas by female composers: Ethel M. Smyth’s Der Wald in 1903 and Kaija Saariaho’s L’Amour de Loin in 2016.

Chicago Symphony audiences will get their first glimpse of the orchestra’s new resident composer on Monday, October 22 when MusicNOW, the CSO’s contemporary chamber music series, opens its 21stseason at the Harris Theater. Mazzoli will curate the four-concert series, which continues November 10 and April 8 and May 20, 2019.

In recent years pairs of composers have shared the CSO’s composer in residence post: Mason Bates and Anna Clyne from 2010 to 2015 and Samuel Adams and Elizabeth Ogonek from 2015 through June. In contrast, Mazzoli will be working on her own.

“I don’t feel like I’m the only one,” said Mazzoli, sounding excited about her CSO appointment in a recent phone interview. “I got a lot of advice from a lot of people and was exposed to a lot of new work in putting this together. I made phone calls to people who would know what was going on. I asked them, ‘Who are the composers you’re excited about?’

“I’ve always wanted to curate a series, but I’ve never had the opportunity. So when I got the call from the CSO in April, that was one of the most attractive things about this opportunity–the ability to promote composers who I feel are deserving of a larger audience.”

She is especially committed to seeking out Chicago-based composers.

“I’ve been in New York for the past 12 years,” Mazzoli said. “I asked a lot of people about the scene in Chicago, who are the up-and-coming Chicago composers? I wanted that to be a big part of it. I know there’s a big flourishing community around Northwestern and the University of Chicago.”

Mazzoli, who turns 38 later this month, arrives in Chicago with an impressive resume. Her three operas, Song from the Uproar, Breaking the Waves and Proving Up, have been critically acclaimed. Ensembles ranging from the Kronos Quartet and eighth blackbird to the Minnesota Orchestra have performed her instrumental music. She has composed several pieces for the TV series, Mozart in the Jungle, and performs with her own new music group, Victoire, often in collaboration with Glenn Kotche, the Chicago-area native and drummer for the Chicago-based group Wilco. Mazzoli has been a resident composer with the Opera Company of Philadelphia and the Albany Symphony.

For her first MusicNOW season, Mazzoli isn’t focusing on a single aesthetic. Her goal is to expose MusicNOW audiences, which she calls “sophisticated and knowledgeable,” to new voices.

“Each concert needs to make sense on its own,” she said, “but the season as a whole does not have a single, overarching theme.

“I have a few guiding principles. I want to present composers who have not been on the series before. All the composers this season are new to MusicNOW. There are so many great composers who are well-known in their native countries but not in America.

“Or they have Chicago roots or connections but have never worked with the CSO before. I’m also interested in presenting minorities and female-identifying composers. Among those three things, I have the seasons pretty well covered. This can be such an amazing opportunity for someone at the beginning or mid-part of a career.”

MusicNOW’s kickoff program features three U.S. premieres. Synaesthesia Suite by Australian composer Kate Moore is a 2014 work scored for violinist and recorded violin soundtrack. Music for roger casement, a tribute to a noted Irish revolutionary by Andrew Hamilton, is written for an 11-piece ensemble. Canadian Nicole Lizée’s Isabella Blow at Somerset House, featuring a string quartet and electronic elements, is a portrait of a legendary British fashion magazine editor. Octet 1979 by American composer Judd Greenstein completes the program.

Composers with Chicago roots will be MusicNOW’s focus in November, and a world premiere by Mazzoli is scheduled for the April 2019 concert. The season closes in May with pieces that use various forms of improvisation.

Mazzoli is thrilled at her Metropolitan Opera commission, a setting of the novel Lincoln at the Bardo, with her frequent librettist, Royce Vavrek.

George Saunders’s book is based upon Abraham Lincoln’s grieving following the death of his 11-year-old son, William. “Lincoln in the Bardo is something Royce and I have talked about for a long time. So when the Met came to me, this was sort of ready to go.

“It’s been a dream of mine since I was 15 to write an opera for the Met,” she said. “I saw my first opera, Wozzeck, at the Met. I was 19. I sat in the back row and loved it.

“This is one of the biggest opportunities a composer can get in America. It’s incredible to be in the position of being one of the first women they’re commissioning because I see tremendous potential to help other women by hopefully being a role model and opening the field up to them.”

MusicNOW opens its season 7 p.m. October 22 at the Harris Theater.; 312-294-3000.

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