Death Valley Junction offers what Missy Mazzoli calls a “sonic depiction” of an isolated outpost in one of the most meteorologically volatile areas in the United States. “Death Valley is one of my favorite places on Earth,” said Mazzoli, Mead Composer-in-Residence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “I really love harshness of the landscape, the extreme weather and the weird characters who live there.”

During a road trip in 2004, she discovered one of those characters in a town near Death Valley National Park in California’s Mojave Desert. Inspired by that journey, Mazzoli wrote the string quartet Death Valley Junction and dedicated it to Marta Becket, a former ballet dancer at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. Commissioned by Santa Fe New Music, the work had its premiere in 2010. It is featured, along with works by Mozart and Dvořák, in Episode 9 of CSO Sessions, which premiered Dec. 10, as part of the ongoing series of small-ensemble concerts streamed on the CSOtv video portal. “It’s something they [CSO musicians] can do with masks on in a smaller configuration, and I’m so glad they are doing it,” she said.

In 1967, Becket discovered what previously had been a recreation hall after she and her husband stopped to repair a flat tire in Death Valley Junction. Becket, who died in 2017 at age 92, converted the structure into an opera house, which also incorporates a hotel and café, and presented weekly one-woman shows there through 2008-09. She later appeared more sparingly, giving her final performance in 2012. 

“This was just a really inspiring, strange story,” Mazzoli said. “I’m really attracted to eccentric, unusual characters, particularly unusual women. And I really wanted to write a piece that captured the strangeness and energy of that space and that woman.”

The result was Death Valley Junction, a one-movement, 10-minute work. “The piece begins with a sparse, edgy texture — the harsh desert landscape — and collapses into a wild and buoyant dance,” the composer writes in her program notes. “Marta Becket once compared herself to the single yellow flower that is able to, against all odds, flourish in the desert. This piece attempts to depict some of her exuberant energy and unstoppable optimism and is dedicated to her.”

Like much else in the classical-music world, in-person performances of Mazzoli’s music came to halt in March, but she has stayed busy teaching via Zoom and composing works for future presentations. “I’m lucky in that I’m a composer, and I can work anywhere even if there is no audience and no performers,” she said.

Mazzoli is finishing her fourth opera, The Listeners, which is tentatively scheduled to premiere in the spring at the Norwegian National Opera and then come to Opera Philadelphia in September. (The two companies co-commissioned the work.) “So we’re crossing our fingers that something can still happen,” she said.

In addition, she recently finalized a contract with the Metropolitan Opera to compose an adaptation of George Saunders’ novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, that would have its premiere in the next four to five years. That project, announced in 2018, makes her one of the first two women to be commissioned to write an opera for the vaunted New York company. “Each project takes three to five years to create, so just by virtue of that timeline, it’s kind of taking over my life,” she said of her recent focus on opera. “But I’m still composing in every other configuration as well.”

TOP: Missy Mazzoli addresses the audience at a MusicNOW concert last season. | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography