Missy Mazzoli masterful in multitasking MusicNOW debut

Tue Oct 23, 2018 at 12:18 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Missy Mazzoli hosted the first MusicNOW concert of the season Monday night at the Harris Theater. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

One was more than a little concerned that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s decision to cut back to just one composer in residence would make curating the MusicNow series too overwhelming a job for a single person.

Not to worry. In the first MusicNOW event of her CSO residency, Missy Mazzoli showed herself a natural and more than equal to the task Monday night at the Harris Theater.

Not only did the American composer program and host the concert, as is custom. She also helped work the board for the first two electronic pieces, dashing back and forth to the stage to introduce the next composer and piece.

Tackling that kind of high-wire multitasking was impressive on its own, but Mazzoli also accomplished it with unruffled ease and consummate flair. Three of the evening’s four composers were on hand, and Mazzoli also conducted relaxed yet incisive interviews with each. Her intelligent, on point questions allowed each composer to introduce their work and briefly expand on their musical philosophy in a way that went beyond the somewhat perfunctory video capsules of recent seasons. Mazzoli also proved a seasoned pro, failing to get rattled by a technical glitch at the top of the evening.

In her own introductory welcome, Mazzoli said her philosophy for MusicNOW was very simple: to make the CSO’s new music series genuinely new. Every composer on all four programs this season is making a series debut without any of their music previously heard at MusicNOW. (Somewhat inexplicably, that includes Mazzoli herself.)

As is usual at MusicNow, the works performed Monday by CSO musicians and guests proved variable in quality and interest. But the lineup—all but one were U.S. premieres— displayed a discerning variety and refreshing array of musical styles, auguring well for Mazzoll’s tenure as MusicNOW curator.

The evening began with Kate Moore’s Synaesthesia Suite for violin and electronics. Just after the music began, soloist Stephanie Jeong stopped playing, indicating that her headset was not working. The CSO associate concertmaster exited the stage and there was a delay of several minutes while the problem was solved and Jeong returned to start over again.

In her program note, Moore states that her “genre-defying” work for violin and eight-channel electroacoustic track “searches for a vision of reality that transcends the darkness of the encroaching doom in search of a glimmer of utopian light.”

You could have fooled me. I just heard amplified, ardent violin riffs against pulsing multichannel electronics. Stephanie Jeong performed with worthy if rather inexpressive advocacy and, while the Australian composer varies the rhythms and tempos with some facility, it’s not enough to maintain interest over the work’s 20-minute length.

Judd Greenstein’s Octet 1979 proved the most successful work of the evening, in part because of its refreshing lack of pretension. In his cordial introduction, Greenstein spoke of his desire to blend more populist strains of music with that of the formal classical concert hall. 

He accomplishes that feat most engagingly. Greenstein sets music for live string quartet against four vintage synthesizers, circa. 1979 (the year he was born). The result is neither traditional classical nor pop, but an adroit mixture of both, the instrumental opposites attracting in a way that is sonically diverting and wholly delightful.

The string players (violinists Baird Dodge and Simon Michal, violist Weijing Wang and cellist Joshua Zajac) performed energetic rhythmic lines while the noodling synthesizers move in and around them, at times taking Rick Wakeman-esque flight. The retro, ear-tickling keyboard sounds evoked some measure of nostalgia for audience members who grew up on the progressive rock groups of the era. 

Composer Nicole Lizée with Missy Mazzoli at MusicNow. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Equally striking was the music of Nicole Lizée. The Canadian composer is best known for multimedia pieces in which she creates arresting visuals, drawing on and/or manipulating retro videotape and stereo equipment.

Yet Lizée’s Isabella Blow at Somerset House is something of an outlier, scored entirely for unplugged string quartet. Blow was the muse of hat designer Phillip Treacy. Lizée—herself a fashionista—took her inspiration from a London exhibition of hats worn by the fashionable Blow, which were positioned on mannikin heads in unsettling fashion. (Blow committed suicide at age 48 in 2007 by drinking the weedkiller Paraquat.)

Lizée’s music for quartet has traces of the dominant minimalism on display in the other works. A courtly theme alternates with restless, rhythmic phrases like a kind of jumpy, acoustical phasing, leading to ghostly high harmonics in the violins at one point.

But Lizée wouldn’t be Lizée without some brand of creative audacity, and so too here. The players are called upon to sing, chant, shush each other, stamp their feet loudly to the music, and play sheets of paper as percussion. As in Haydn’s “Farewell” symphony, at the end the players arise and leave the stage one by one, leaving violist Danny Lai alone to play the quiet final notes.

All this would seem like mere gimmickry in lesser hands, but Lizée succeeds in making an effective and compelling musical whole out of her disparate elements. The game musicians (violinists Matous Michal and Hermine Gagne, violist Lai and cellist Calum Cook) gave the music their considerable all, with violinist Gagne showing a gracious singing voice in the vocal descants.

Like the Kate Moore piece, Music for Roger Casement (2006) by Irish composer Andrew Hamilton also went on for a duration beyond its musical shelf life, but at least proved more sonically intriguing. Hamilton’s work was inspired by the titled Irish diplomat who was executed for his part in the 1916 Easter Uprising.

Hamilton’s work was the Big Bertha of the night, scored for mixed 11-piece chamber orchestra of strings and winds, as well as trumpet, horn and harmonium.

Music for Roger Casement is a kind of super-sized minimalism, centered on an emphatic, heavy-footed rhythmic riff, with strident brass and shrieking winds set against a wheezing harmonium. There is not a lot of development over this 23-minute work as Hamilton’s heaving machine chugs on in a kind of grim, inexorable progress, marked by raw, gnarly textures and slashing staccatos.

One gets the sense that Hamilton’s piece is not only a (nonprogrammatic) political piece but a kind of subversive goof in its very nature and duration. The composer has also written works called toenail, music for cows, music for losers, everything is ridiculous, and frank o’hara on the phone piece.

Conductor Cliff Colnot kept the lumbering beast on track admirably but ultimately Hamilton’s piece was more striking for its genial anarchy than for the music itself.

The next MusicNOW program, “Chicago’s Own,” takes place 7 p.m. November 19 at the Harris Theater. cso.org

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