'Gatecrasher of Classical' Missy Mazzoli Premieres Violin Concerto with Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra

This March, the CSO will present Mazzoli’s “Violin Concerto (Procession),” a co-commission with the National Symphony Orchestra.

click to enlarge Missy Mazzoli - Photo: Marylene Mey
Photo: Marylene Mey
Missy Mazzoli

Missy Mazzoli is no longer “the 21st century’s gatecrasher of new Classical music,” as NPR proclaimed in 2018. She’s now firmly inside the seemingly intractable fortress — an acclaimed composer whose works are commissioned and performed by major ensembles throughout the world.

On March 11 and 12, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra will present Mazzoli’s violin concerto — “Violin Concerto (Procession)” — a co-commission with the National Symphony Orchestra, performed by Mazzoli’s frequent collaborator Jennifer Koh.

During the concert, the May Festival Chorus will also sing Mozart’s “Mass in C Minor.”

“This is the first orchestral piece I’ve written with the violin specifically in mind,” Mazzoli tells CityBeat, although she has several works for solo violin, including a commissioned fanfare for CSO concertmaster Stefani Matsuo.

Mazzoli’s concerto is also the latest in a series of collaborations with Koh, which began in 2010 when Koh asked Mazzoli to participate in her “Bach and Beyond” project, a program combining Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for violin with newly commissioned works referencing specific Bach pieces.

Mazzoli’s response was “Dissolve, O My Heart,” commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, based on Bach’s “Chaconne from the Partita in D minor.” Mazzoli writes on her website that although the task was “utterly terrifying,” she was inspired by Koh’s approach to Bach through the lens of contemporary music.

In the last decade, Mazzoli has written several short solo pieces for Koh. Most recently she penned “Hail, Horrors, Hail,” commissioned by the ARCO Group — Koh’s Classical music inclusivity nonprofit — as a response to COVID-19 isolation, as well as the 2020 “Alone Together” series.

A violin concerto seemed like the obvious next step, but Mazzoli says the composition evolved over years of discussion, shared coffee and Chinese food.

Speaking from her apartment in Brooklyn, Mazzoli says that conversations began with what form a concerto would take.

“I asked Jen what her role feels like when she stands in front of an orchestra in a dramatic sense. And over the years, an idea began to take shape,” she says.

Mazzoli and Koh continued scrutinizing the concerto form itself, questioning the soloist’s role, and gradually the concerto began to develop. At that point, the composition was purely an independent project, and Mazzoli credits both her and Koh’s managements with helping to secure the CSO and the National Symphony as co-commissioners.

click to enlarge Violinist Jennifer Koh performs alongside the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 2016 - Photo: Mark Lyons
Photo: Mark Lyons
Violinist Jennifer Koh performs alongside the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 2016

Attendees shouldn’t expect to hear a conventional concerto with themes, variations and elaborate cadenzas and orchestral accompaniment.

“Missy’s work questions whether the soloist is leading the orchestra or within the ensemble,” Koh says. “It’s musical questioning that’s communicated in a very musical way.”

Although “Violin Concerto (Procession)” is purely instrumental, Mazzoli’s work in opera serves as a powerful influence. She says “creating a mini-drama for each movement” helped her with structure.

“A concerto has an interesting relationship between the one and the many, and that suggests a lot of dramatic scenarios,” Mazzoli says. “The soloist can be leading and guiding the orchestra through something or be in opposition to them, or the orchestra can engulf the soloist.”

“Each movement took on one of these relationships and explored it to its ridiculous end,” she continues with a laugh. “It’s not absurdist at all. This isn’t a funny piece, just in an extreme way.”

The opening movement, “Procession in a Spiral,” has the soloist taking the spiral to an extreme, Mazzoli says. “The movement starts with this spiral with a wide range that collapses in on itself until we’re left with the violinist soloing at the end of the movement.”

The second movement is inspired by the neurological condition known as St. Vitus’ dance, in which the sufferer’s muscle groups move irregularly or involuntarily. “The violinist leads the orchestra through this maniacal dance, accelerating into a tempo that’s almost impossible to play,” Mazzoli says.

The concerto concludes with another procession, this time ascending “into heaven or infinity,” she says

Mazzoli and Koh had a unique opportunity to workshop the concerto at The Juilliard School, where Koh serves as a creative partner. Koh, a longtime advocate for new works, says that the workshop sessions were revelatory for both performers and composition students.

“There’s an incredible amount of trust between Missy and me, and they picked up on that. It was important for the kids to see how the best collaborative processes happen,” Koh says. “A lot of ideas were flying back and forth.”

Both accomplished artists bring perspectives as people who have led ensembles and performers. And for both, collaboration is essential.

“I tell composers that as violinists, we spend our lives learning the standard rep, but we interpret them in new ways,” Koh says. “Missy and I are specialized and have a great deal of knowledge of what is complicated and what works, both in terms of a composition and the players involved.”

Koh’s last performance with the CSO was in 2016, and she is looking forward to returning. Mazzoli will be in the audience for the performance, but her music debuted at the CSO in 2020, with “Fanfare for the Unimpressed” for the orchestra’s Fanfare Project, an initiative that commissioned more than a dozen composers to write works for solo instruments.

One of Mazzoli’s childhood dreams was fulfilled when her hometown Philadelphia Orchestra, led by Yannick Nezét-Séguin, performed her haunting, dreamlike “Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres)” in December — a piece also performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic and during the BBC Proms series at Royal Albert Hall in London.

“I didn’t realize what it meant to me until I walked onto the stage with the musicians,” Mazzoli says. “It’s exciting, really a dream. I’m grateful the work can exist in lots of different environments, in multiple spaces.”

And now Mazzoli is ready to experience the performance of her “Violin Concerto (Procession)” at Cincinnati’s Music Hall.

“Hearing my music performed is really an out-of-body experience. I’m always listening for what I can improve during rehearsals. But during the concert I try to let it wash over me,” she says.

“I really love that tension of hearing it in front of an audience and not knowing what they’re going to think or how it’s going to come off.”

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra will perform Missy Mazzoli’s “Violin Concerto (Procession)” March 11 and 12 at Music Hall (1241 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine). More info and tickets: cincinnatisymphony.org.

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*A previous version of this story called this the world premiere. It is the CSO premiere; "Violin Concerto (Procession)" was first performed by the National Symphony Orchestra.

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