Classical connoisseur Henry Litwhiler spent thirsty Thursday drinking from the beer bong of beauty at Miller Theatre’s Composer Portrait of the unclassifiable Missy Mazzoli.
Dubbed in 2010 by Time Out New York as “Brooklyn’s post-Millenial Mozart,” composer Missy Mazzoli has enjoyed mounting fame in the New York and global classical scenes. Her 2012 premiere of Song From the Uproar was met with wide acclaim, as was her 2013 Vespers for a New Age, which had its premiere at Carnegie Hall.
Mazzoli describes her work as an effort to bring together the best attributes of indie rock and classical music, in an effort to create pieces that are both powerful and deep. Her band, Victoire, has, for its varied influences, eluded classification even by critics keen to label. NPR once described it as “pseudo-post-pre-modernist indie-chamber-electronica,” while the New York Times somewhat noncommittally suggested that it “leans toward art-rock, electronica and chamber music.” Whatever the case, Victoire’s performances of Mazzoli’s compositions have earned the band considerable notoriety and critical praise.
Mazzoli briefly taught music at NYU in 2013 before moving seventy-odd blocks north to The New School’s Mannes College of Music. And so it should really come as no surprise that she took another leap uptown this week to take part in the Miller Theatre’s “Composer Portraits” series, which seeks to bring up-and-coming composers to campus for exhibitions of their work and discussions of their processes.
The night began with the Mivos Quartet performing Mazzoli’s 2010 Death Valley Junction, a portrait of a small town in the Mojave Desert and a woman who renovated a decrepit opera house there in the 1960s. It begins with subtle, discordant notes which gradually give way over the course of the piece to a frenzied, joyous melody.
This energy was carried on into the next piece, Dissolve, O my Heart, a solo violin work written in reference to the last movement of Bach’s Partita in D minor. The reference is, at times, dishearteningly clear; Mazzoli intersperses Bach’s template with unexpected darts and sudden pauses, as though striving for originality but unsure of her footing. Mazzoli’s aim however is to stand on the shoulders of a giant like Bach, not in his shadow—Dissolve is meant to be heard as a contemporary tribute rather than a contemporary response to the Partita.
Mazzoli aptly describes the next piece, A Thousand Tongues, as “short but intense.” It builds a repetitive foundation out of a cello solo before introducing several hauntingly-sung lines from a poem by Stephen Crane. The impact of the piece carried the audience through the somewhat un-compelling Harp and Altar, a musical portrait of the Brooklyn Bridge, and Tooth and Nail, a piece inspired somewhat esoterically by the Uzbek “Jew’s harp.” Whatever their musical merit, the pair left much of the audience fidgeting and inspired one man to take a hearty swig from a plastic bag.
In between Harp and Tooth came an on-stage interview of the composer herself, in which she briefly discussed her eclectic interests that she tries to bring together in her compositions and the various threads she noticed between her works while preparing for this performance.
The highlight of the evening was progressive string quartet ETHEL‘s performed the aria from Mazzoli’s upcoming opera, Breaking the Waves, based on a film of the same name by Lars von Trier. Soprano Marnie Breckenridge performed as Bess McNeill, a woman from an insular Irish community who falls in love with a man who works on an oil rig. The work poses a compelling contrast between McNeill’s youthful humor and hints of the darkness to come. The full opera is scheduled to premiere at Opera Philadelphia in September of 2016.
The performance concluded with the world premiere of Mazzoli’s most recent work, Quartet for Queen Mab, which was co-commissioned by ETHEL and by the Miller Theatre itself. Like many of Mazzoli’s works, the Quartet is best enjoyed with a sense of its intentions. As the composer explains, Mab is “a tiny fairy who drives her chariot into the nose of sleeping people…eliciting dreams of their heart’s desire.” The Quartet is meant to simulate the fairy’s dream-state, with flowing melodies drawing the listener further from the opening and old fragments snapping him back to the start.
Though not always perfectly accessible, the night’s selections of Mazzoli’s work bore clear relation to their subjects and brilliantly prodded the imaginations of the audience. The extensive integration of modern technology—iPads as sheet music and the light use of electronic samples—was at times unsettling or even annoying, but it was never gimmicky and served to mark the performance, and Mazzoli’s work, as decidedly modern.
The Miller Theatre’s next Composer Portrait will take place on February 19th and will feature Italian composer Stefano Gervasoni.
Composer portrait via The Miller Theatre