After an acclaimed inaugural season, Missy Mazzoli is back for seconds.
For her sophomore year as Mead Composer-in-Residence and curator of MusicNOW, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 22-year-old contemporary music series, Mazzoli has chosen to continue what she did in her first season: put an emphasis on composers new to the series, especially women and those with Chicago connections. Also on tap for this season: a big boost in commissions, with four scheduled.
“My philosophy is to program people who have not been celebrated by the Chicago Symphony before and who have not generally been celebrated by a major American orchestra yet,” she said. “So we’re able to be one of the first organizations to promote a lot of amazing, mostly young talent.”
Mazzoli couldn’t be more pleased with the outcome of her first MusicNOW season. “It was amazing,” she said. “It was great. I was really thrilled with the variety we were able to get on the series.”
Based in New York, Mazzoli was particularly impressed by the audience response and how her relationship with attendees seemed to deepen as the season progressed. “Over the concerts I felt like I was becoming more a part of the musical community of Chicago, just naturally by virtue of spending more time there and connecting to audiences more than once.”
As a result, she said, the final 2018-19 MusicNOW concert in May was more moving than she expected. It included Jessie Montgomery’s world-premiere arrangements of two works by Julius Eastman: Joy Boy and Gay Guerrilla. The adventurous African-American composer, a founding member of the S.E.M. Ensemble, died in 1990 at age 49 after becoming homeless and largely forgotten. “That was just an amazing thing to be able to premiere that on the series,” Mazzoli said.
Because Mazzoli was appointed composer-in-residence in July, just a few months before the start of the 2018-19 season, there was no time to undertake commissions, except for several arrangements. So such projects became a big focus for 2019-20, which will include six world premieres, including four commissions. Among them will be Code Switch by Wang Lu, 37, a Chinese-born composer who serves as an assistant professor of music at Brown University.
“The very powerful thing about this series is its ability to elevate voices that aren’t yet celebrated,” Mazzoli said. “The CSO is one of our major American orchestras and obviously has a massive reputation. Every time the CSO puts its imprint on something, that means an incredible amount, especially to a young, up-and-coming artist. So I want to take advantage of that and celebrate people who are not the usual suspects.”
A particular highlight of the 2019-20 season will be the May 18 program, which marks the 55th anniversary of the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a highly influential collective of groundbreaking, genre-busting artists. Mazzoli is friends with composer and trombonist George Lewis, who in 2008 published a history of the AACM titled A Power Stronger Than Itself. Mazzoli discovered that the CSO had never officially collaborated with the group. “In my mind, those are the two big musical organizations of Chicago,” she said. “So I thought, this is their 55th anniversary, and it would be a great opportunity to highlight a small part of what is a really massive, extraordinary, very diverse organization.”
A highlight of the program, titled Sounds from the Future: Musicians of the AACM, is a commissioned work by Nicole Mitchell, a flutist and former AACM chairwoman. “I’m thrilled,” Mazzoli said. “I’m a huge fan of all these composers but really, that we have a new piece from Nicole Mitchell that the CSO has commissioned is a big deal.” Also on the program will be the world premiere of Wadada Leo Smith’s Delta Blues and Lewis’ Tales of the Traveler, which features Tomeka Reid as cello soloist and improviser.
Last season’s MusicNOW lineup included Mazzoli’s arrangement of a piece by Meredith Monk, but not one of her own, full-fledged works. That will change March 23 with a performance of Ecstatic Science, a sextet for flute, clarinet, trumpet, violin, viola and cello. It was commissioned by yMusic and had its premiere at Carnegie Hall in 2016. “It’s one of these fiendishly difficult chamber works, and I’m excited,” she said. “That will be the first piece that the CSO has ever performed of mine, believe it or not.” (Music Director Riccardo Muti and the CSO will debut the composer’s Orpheus Undone in concerts on April 30 and May 1-3.)
The MusicNOW concerts, which feature members of the Chicago Symphony and guest artists, are at 7 p.m. on Mondays on Oct. 7, Dec. 2, March 23 and May 18 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph. Patrons will have a chance to meet participating composers and musicians during informal receptions after each concert. Complimentary food and beverages will be available.
Here is the 2019-20 lineup:
Oct. 7, Community Acoustics with conductor Michael Lewanski and percussionist Cynthia Yeh
Wang Code Switch (world premiere, MusicNOW commission)
Verunelli Magic Mauve
Brown Figure to Ground
Merivale The Language of Mountains Is Rain
White Community Acoustics (world premiere of a new arrangement, a MusicNOW commission)
Dec. 2, Obscure Clues and Shiny Objects with conductor Alan Pierson and violinist Yuan-Qing Yu
Little obscure clues and shiny objects
O’Halloran Vertical Fields
Randall-Myers Chopsticks from Anthology
March 23, Ecstatic Science with conductor Edwin Outwater and Quince Ensemble
Lyons Bone Needles
Reminick The Pub from In Dreams (world premiere)
Mazzoli Ecstatic Science
Bryan New Work (world premiere, MusicNOW commission)
May 18, Sounds from the Future: Musicians of the AACM with conductor Michael Lewanski and cellist Tomeka Reid
Reid Prospective Dwellers
Smith Delta Blues (world premiere)
Mitchell New Work (world premiere, MusicNOW commission)
Lewis Tales of the Traveler