“Here, at last, is our composer-in-residence,” says Chicago Symphony Orchestra music director Riccardo Muti at a fall morning rehearsal, introducing Missy Mazzoli from his podium. The orchestra applauds. “And her name is pronounced mat-zol-ie, not mah-sol-ie,” Muti adds, “because she is of Italian heritage.” Even through her black mask, Mazzoli seems a bit uneasy and shifts her posture while uttering, “Um, yeah.” The orchestra laughs.
Given the 2019 CSO strike and the cancellation of most of the 2020 and 2021 seasons, the full orchestra was playing Mazzoli’s music for the very first time later that evening.
“Well, I’m American,” Mazzoli will later admit. “So, my family for three generations has pronounced it the American way. In the end, it is a personal decision.”
Curiously, she even says the name of Lyric’s new music director Enrique Mazzola—who will conduct her opera “Proving Up” for Lyric on January 22-30—the American way rather than the Italian way he uses.
It is also revealing that Mazzoli self-describes as American rather than Italian-American: it speaks to seeing herself as part of the melting pot of America as well as of the eclectic influences that come together to make up her compositional voice.
“Clearly, this is a person who has studied and who knows music,” says Muti, who chose Mazzoli as CSO composer-in-residence based on the quality of her scores. “I have spent several months studying this piece,” he says of her 2006 work “These Worlds in Us,” the work with which Mazzoli was making her long-delayed CSO debut, even though her residency had officially ended last June. “It is complex and full of effects.”
“These Worlds in Us” won Mazzoli the 2007 ASCAP Young Composers Award. “This piece has been around for many years,” says Mazzoli. “I wrote it when I was twenty-five. Thankfully, it’s been played in lots of different scenarios all around the world, every possible kind of interpretation. There’s not infinite time to work on a piece over the course of weeks. Usually, I have about thirty seconds to make comments and say what I’m going to say. So you have to go at things that are important and that they have time to work on.”
What did Mazzoli address when Muti turned to her for an opinion? “It is amazing,” Mazzoli said to applause from the orchestra, “but it does need to be a bit faster.” The piece had been rehearsed for the first time only the day before. “A piece like this with lots of glissandi ideally needs more time,” Muti had said during a rehearsal break a day earlier. But dramatist that Muti is, he liked the introduction a bit slower. “That was beautiful,” said Mazzoli, “but then it needs to pick up a bit.” “It shall be done,” declared Muti.
Was the Muti/Chicago Symphony performance of Mazzoli’s “These Worlds In Us” that resulted her favorite interpretation of the piece thus far? “I can’t say that I have a favorite interpretation,” she says, “because every situation is different. If there was something that I really want done, I’ll put it in the score. That’s my power as a composer.
“I enjoyed the interpretation,” Mazzoli says. “It was thrilling to have a piece done by the orchestra for the first time. The particular Chicago brass sound is so iconic and singular and different from other orchestras. It was lovely to work with everybody on this interpretation. I mean, every work is just a blueprint for interpretation in the end. I’m providing a map for the players and the conductor. And it’s a very, very precise map, but it can’t include everything. Working with an orchestra is a collaboration. Working with any performer is a collaboration. Any conductor. And my philosophy is to always let people do their job. I want people to feel like they’re bringing their self expression to the work. And I want everyone to feel a sense of a little bit of ownership of the work, too. I’m very happy when people come to a piece with fresh ears and fresh ideas. As much as I wish that I could be at every performance of mine, it’s becoming less and less possible.”
When Enrique Mazzola performed “These Worlds in Us” with the London Philharmonic Orchestra in March of 2021, for instance, Mazzoli was not able to be there.
“I can tell you, I admire Missy Mazzoli very much,” says Mazzola. “I am particularly proud that we are presenting a contemporary work of a woman composer during my first season [as music director of Lyric Opera]. It should be something obvious today but the numbers actually claim that it’s not obvious. So I am particularly proud to conduct an opera from an artist who has an international career, who has a very personal style.
“I already started conducting some Missy Mazzoli with the London Philharmonic and I find her music extremely interesting. So I will say that at this moment, Mizzy Mazzoli is one of the most interesting young American composers.”
Curiously, Mazzoli and Mazzola will be meeting for the first time during this month’s preparations for “Proving Up.” “I’m so thrilled about ‘Proving Up’ coming to Chicago,” says Mazzoli. “When I was spending so much time here, I went to Lyric many times but at that point, having an opera done there was like a glimmer in my eye. And they went with the idea of ‘Proving Up,’ which is fantastic. And they’re going to recreate an early production which is a really thrilling production. It’s almost like an installation. The whole opera takes place on a runway of dirt and the audience is on either side so there’s an intimacy with that staging that I think is very rare in opera. Depending on where you’re sitting, you could be a foot away from the singers at some point. It’s really special and a special piece for me. It’s a piece that takes place in the Midwest so I’m very happy it’s coming to Chicago.”
“Proving Up” is Mazzoli’s third opera, with the result that she’s become associated with the genre. There are commissions for at least two future operas, including for the Metropolitan Opera and a co-commission that includes Lyric Opera. Does Mazzoli consider “Proving Up” a good introduction to her operas?
“It is. ‘Proving Up’ is about seventy-five minutes long and there’s no intermission. It has six singers and one non-singing actor role. The musical ensemble is thirteen people. So it’s of a scale that is sort of digestible,” she says, laughing. “This is a story about the American dream. This is a story about the role of fate and destiny. This is a story about the gruesome legacy of manifest destiny, of resettling the West. Whether you’re a history buff or interested in the darker side of the Homestead Act or have roots in your family of people that were homesteaders or people who are indigenous American, there’s a way in to this story. I think that it has really resonated with a lot of people because of that. And it’s also fun. There’s all this sort of magic that comes out of the short story that we’re able to bring to life on stage which is extra thrilling. There’s lots of ways in, there are lots of reasons to get into this story and get into this piece.
“Another big part of the story is the randomness of fate and destiny. We have the idea that if you just work hard enough, anything’s possible. That’s sort of the American dream. The story that I wanted to tell was the story of an American family that does everything right and still fails. In a land where you’re taught from a young age that all success is earned, is failure also earned? And I was also interested in the idea that a family could do everything right and still fail feels at its core, un-American. That’s the story that I wanted to tell.”
Mazzoli will also be back at the CSO in March for the world premiere of “Orpheus Undone,” the work that represents the culmination of her time as composer-in-residence.
“I wanted a piece that was very virtuosic and that showed off the members of the orchestra in a really fun way, that showed off that great brass section. You file all those ideas away and at a certain point, when it came time to write you just write. When I write, I’m always picturing the hall where the piece is going to premiere. The players. It’s more of a visualization than anything else. Certainly being in that hall and with those people will work its way into the piece. It’s hard to say how. It’s much more of a subconscious process.
“It’s a two-movement piece that is loosely based on the Orpheus myth but a very specific moment when Orpheus realizes that Eurydice has gone down to the underworld. My goal was to play with this idea of things moving at different speeds which in my experience is something that happens in moments of great shock or trauma. You know, things feel like they’re moving either very fast, or very slow and sometimes both at the same time. The whole piece plays with tempo in that way in that there are a lot of different tempi going on at the same time and it’s emotionally a piece about that moment.”
As many of the scheduled concerts during Mazzoli’s residency, the premiere of “Orpheus Undone” had been canceled and rescheduled.
“The work was completed at the start of 2020, just before the pandemic. Because of the strike and the pandemic, about half of the concerts [of my tenure] were canceled or converted into digital format or postponed. That was massively disruptive but even with that, I was able to do so much of what I wanted to do, particularly with the curation of the MusicNOW series. I did stay one extra year but that was the year of 2020-2021. There weren’t concerts happening but it enabled me to work with the staff to plan the digital MusicNOW concerts and have the digital premieres of Courtney Bryan’s ‘Requiem’ and my bass concerto so I was happy about that. I’ll be back in Chicago a lot more this year than I was the last year-and-a-half.”
The accomplishment Mazzoli is most proud of is bringing young composers to the attention of the CSO that might have otherwise flown under the radar. Among these are Jessie Montgomery, now Mazzoli’s successor as CSO composer-in-residence and the first African American to hold that position.
“I’m very happy I was able to accomplish that mission and provide opportunities to particularly young and emerging composers, including Jessie Montgomery. We programmed her string quartet ‘Break Away’ and also commissioned her to make an arrangement of a Julius Eastman work ‘Gay Guerrilla’ that she knocked out of the park. She was so wonderful to work with when she was here that I feel like she’s a natural fit. I can take responsibility for one-one-hundredth of that appointment. She did the rest of the work. I feel like she’s a perfect fit. Jessie has so many skills. She’s an amazing composer. She’s an amazing violinist and chamber music player She’s an amazing curator. It just seemed like she was kind of a natural. I was very happy about the choice.”
Although Mazzoli resides in New York City, Chicago continues to resonate with her personally as well as professionally.
“Chicago is so amazing, All the different neighborhoods, all the artistic communities living side by side, down to the food. The different communities from all over the world that found a home here. I really had an amazing time. I feel like I was able to make friends and connect to what was going on in the jazz world, what was going on in the performance art world, going out to University of Chicago, up to Northwestern, there’s so much happening.
“I’ve been writing a lot and a lot of really big works, all with Chicago connections. I’m almost done with a big piece for Third Coast Percussion. And just today, I finished a violin concerto for Jennifer Koh who is from Chicago. And I finished my fourth opera which will come to Lyric as well. It’s called ‘The Listeners’ and was co-commissioned by Chicago Lyric.”
For Mazzoli, composing remains the ultimate exercise in control in a world that remains out of control.
“It is a relief from the chaos because I’m putting things in order. Quite literally, when you’re writing music you’re putting things on a little grid of lines. It’s also a process that has not changed since I was a little kid. I have been writing music since I was ten years old. There’s a sameness to it, the activity, which is very comforting. I don’t feel like it’s a refuge. In a way it’s relief but it’s a relief by looking straight at things and trying to understand things. And processing things. And helping other people process them together in a concert hall. Or on a stage. Those are my favorite moments when you feel like we’re all working through these things together.”
Dennis Polkow is an award-winning veteran journalist, critic, author, broadcaster and educator. He made his stage debut at age five, was a child art prodigy and began playing keyboards in clubs at the age of fourteen. He holds degrees in music theory, composition, religious studies and philosophy from DePaul University in Chicago. Polkow spent his early years performing and recording in rock and jazz bands while concertizing as a classical pianist, organist and harpsichordist and composing, arranging and producing for other artists. As a scholar, Polkow has published and lectured extensively and taught at several colleges and universities in various departments. As an actor, narrator and consultant, Polkow has been involved with numerous films, plays, broadcasts and documentaries. As a journalist, Polkow helped co-create the experiential Chicago Musicale and Spotlight, the award-winning tabloid arts and entertainment section of the Press Publications chain of newspapers, which he later edited. He also created and ran the nationally recognized journalism program at Oakton College and was faculty advisor to its award-winning student newspaper; many former students went on to major media careers, including Channel Awesome’s the Nostalgia Critic. Polkow’s research, interviews, features, reviews and commentaries have appeared across national and international media and he has corresponded from the Middle East, Asia and Africa for the Chicago Tribune. Contact: email@example.com