Three American premieres and works new to Chicago will be among the highlights of the 2018-19 season of MusicNOW, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s contemporary music series. This season, the series’ 21st, introduces New York-based artist Missy Mazzoli, the CSO’s recently appointed Mead Composer-in-Residence. She is the curator of the series, with concerts on Oct. 22, Nov. 19, April 8 and May 22 at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.

In July, Zell Music Director Riccardo Muti selected Mazzoli as the orchestra’s next composer-in-residence, a position she will hold through 2020. “I’ve always wanted to curate,” Mazzoli said. “I’ve always had so many ideas in my back pocket about whom I would champion given the chance. So this opportunity is a perfect fit for that.”

The composer outlined three goals for her first MusicNOW season:

• Spotlight composers new to the series: She wanted to program composers previously not featured on MusicNOW, and her choices fit that criterion. Virtually every composer represented this season will be new to MusicNOW. Finding previously unprogrammed talents “was hard because MusicNOW goes back 20 years, so there has been a ton of amazing composers,” she said. “But for my first year, I wanted to showcase new people.”

• Focus on Chicago composers: Mazzoli sought to put an emphasis on Chicago composers: either ones based here or ones with roots in the city. The Nov. 19 program, for example, features four up-and-coming such figures: Drew Baker, Suzanne Farrin, Morgan Krauss and Sky Macklay. Farrin’s Uscirmi di Braccia, a collection of “songs without words,” is based on sonnets by the Italian Renaissance poet Petrarch.

• Promote female composers: She also wanted to feature women such as Nicole Lizée, Sky Macklay and Kate Moore, who previously have not had an opportunity to work with a major American symphony orchestra. Working with composer Ellen Reid and the Kaufman Music Center, Mazzoli recently established Luna Composition Lab, a mentor program for aspiring female composers ages 13-19. In making her selections, Mazzoli teamed with orchestra administrators in terms of managing such logistics as budgeting, personnel and timing. “All that had to be worked out with the CSO,” she said, “but artistically, they were very, very open and really supportive.”

As usual, the four-concert series, which features members of the Chicago Symphony, will take place at 7 p.m. on Mondays at the Harris, 205 E. Randolph. Attendees 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 2018-19 lineup:

Oct. 22: Quirks and Currents

Idiosyncratic uses of tonality and minimalism tie together the works on this program, which opens with the U.S. premiere of Australian composer Kate Moore’s Synaesthesia Suite (2014), composed for violin and an automated track of a synthesized violin. American composer Judd Greenstein’s Octet 1979 is scored for string quartet with a recorded track of four vintage synthesizers manufactured in the year of the composer’s birth. Canadian composer Nicole Lizée also finds inspiration from electronic sounds in her string quartet inspired by British fashion magazine editor Isabella Blow, Isabella Blow at Somerset House, which receives its U.S. premiere. Closing the program is another U.S. premiere, Irish composer Andrew Hamilton’s music for roger casement, a tribute to the late Irish revolutionary, scored for an 11-piece mixed ensemble with strings, woodwinds, brass and harmonium.

Cliff Colnot conductor
Stephanie Jeong violin

Moore  Synaesthesia Suite (U.S. premiere)
Greenstein Octet 1979
Lizée  Isabella Blow at Somerset House (U.S. premiere)
Hamilton   music for roger casement (U.S. premiere)

Nov. 19: Chicago’s Own

Music by three rising-star composers with Chicago roots — Suzanne Farrin, Morgan Krauss and Drew Baker — along with works by New York-based composer Sky Macklay and Icelandic composer Daniel Bjarnason explore the sonic possibilities of traditional classical instruments. Scored for viola and bass drum, Farrin’s Uscirmi di Braccia (“leave my arms”) is part of a collection of “songs without words” based on sonnets by the Italian Renaissance poet Petrarch. Krauss’ destroy the middle features frenetic punctuated sounds over soft, sustained tones, while Baker’s Charon (named for the boatman ferrying dead souls across the river Acheron in Greek mythology) transports the listener on an ethereal journey. Macklay’s string quartet Many Many Cadences recontextualizes chord progressions by creating disjointed phrases with fast musical cells constantly changing in key and register. Bjarnason’s three-movement Bow to String, for solo cello and chamber orchestra, evokes tension and tenderness with its thick harmonies and simple melody layered over a violently percussive foundation.

Alan Pierson conductor
Weijing Wang viola
Katinka Kelijn cello

Farrin      Uscirmi di Braccia
Krauss     destroy the middle
Baker      Charon
Macklay  Many Many Cadences
Bjarnson  Bow to String

April 8: Dark With Excessive Bright

With the world premiere of a new arrangement of Dark With Excessive Bright, a concerto for double bass and strings, MusicNOW patrons will have their first chance to hear music written by Mazzoli. The original version, arranged for double bass and string orchestra, received its premiere last February in Australia. While loosely based in Baroque idioms, Mazzoli’s Dark With Excessive Bright reflects string techniques across several centuries. The program also features Gabriella Smith’s Riprap, a mini-concerto for marimba, and Mario Diaz de León’s Anima, scored for three cellos. The program closes with Webster’s Spin (1993), written by Ann Southam, which examines the meditative tranquility of weaving and sewing. Southam, a Canadian native who died in 2010, pursued a feminist aesthetic based on the rhythms of traditional tasks such as cleaning or weaving.

Edwin Outwater conductor
Cynthia Yeh marimba
Alexander Hanna double bass

Diaz de León    Anima
Smith    Riprap
Mazzoli  Dark With Excessive Bright (world premiere arrangement, CSO commission)
Southam Webster’s Spin

May 20: Break Away

The season finale offers elements of improvisation, open scoring and spontaneity. Two compositions by Julius Eastman, whose works are experiencing a revival nearly 30 years after his death, the post-minimalist Joy Boy and Gay Guerrilla, will be heard in new arrangements by Seth Parker Woods. At the piano, Mazzoli will perform her new arrangement of Passage and What Does It Mean?, two works by visionary composer-performer Meredith Monk. Also on the program is Jessie Montgomery’s five-movement, improvisational string quartet Break Away.

Missy Mazzoli piano

Eastman, arr. Woods  Joy Boy (world premiere arrangement, CSO commission)
Monk, arr. Mazzoli  Passage/What Does It Mean? (world premiere arrangement, CSO commission)
Montgomery   Break Away
Eastman, arr. Woods  Gay Guerrilla (world premiere arrangement, CSO commission)

Subscriptions and single tickets are now on sale. Subscriptions are $80; $36 for students with a valid student ID. Single tickets are $28 for general admission; $15, students with a valid student ID. 
Tickets may be purchased by phone at (800) 223-7114 or (312) 294‑3000, online at, or at the Symphony Center box office, 220 S. Michigan.

TOP: CSO musicians perform at the MusicNOW season finale concert in May. | Todd Rosenberg Photography 2018