Missy Mazzoli’s MusicNOW is a real wow

Members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform “Gay Guerilla” by Julius Eastman at the last MusicNOW concert of the season. (Photo courtesy of Todd Rosenberg)

By M.L. Rantala
Music critic

Sir Georg Solti named John Corigliano as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s first composer-in-residence in 1987. Since then, there have been a number of composers to fill the post that was later endowed and renamed the Mead composer-in-residence, including Shulamit Ran, Augusta Read Thomas, Osvaldo Golijov, and Mark-Anthony Turnage.

The current incumbent is Missy Mazzoli, appointed by CSO music director Riccardo Muti, who will hold the position until June of 2020. The most valued element of the job is that the composer is commissioned to write for the CSO and can hear the new work performed by a great orchestra. But another part of the job is organizing the MusicNOW series. MusicNOW is the annual four-concert series which presents work from established contemporary composers as well as new voices spanning the wide contemporary music scene.

The final MusicNOW concert of this season took place last week at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance and listeners were treated to a bracing, exciting, polished evening of contemporary music played with skill and clear dedication by musicians of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Under the title “Break Away,” Mazzoli organized an alluring concert of four pieces, two by Julius Eastman, one by Meredith Monk, and one by Jessie Montgomery.

Except for the last of those, they were all world premieres of new arrangements.

An arrangement might seem on the face of it like small beer, but Mazzoli’s sure-footed and helpful dialogues with the composers and arrangers on the bill provided insight into how and why the arrangements were made. Eastman, for example, created many scores which are fascinating as documents (a few were helpfully displayed on a large screen at the back of the stage) but can be difficult to understand, causing some musicians to balk at the time involved in understanding them. And some of his scores were lost when he was evicted from his New York apartment, causing his fans to scour various sources to recover them or find other extant copies. These arrangements help make the Julius Eastman canon more secure and better known.

First on the program was Eastman’s 1974 composition “Joy Boy,” arranged by Shelley Washington, who had only a one-page score with open notation and the instruction to “create ticker tape music” to work from. Washington created a quartet for flute, oboe, clarinet, and bassoon. The four musicians worked together expertly, with their first notes both ragged and tentative, establishing an unsettled atmosphere.

Eastman is generally categorized as a minimalist, but preferred to call his output “organic music.” He described his own style as that of “gradual accrual and accumulation, often followed by gradual disintegration.” The CSO players clearly understood this: as the music grew more cohesive and complex, so did their playing become brighter and more energetic. It was good fun and as perky a parade as you could desire.

Mazzoli was the arranger for the next work by Meredith Monk, who, among her many accomplishments, had collaborated with Eastman. It combined two Monk works under the title, “Passage, What Does It Mean?” based on works originally written in 1971 and 2008. Mazzoli employed flute, clarinet, bassoon, violin, bass, piano, and recorded voice of Monk. Plus there was the added bonus that Mazzoli joined the ensemble at the piano.

It opened with gorgeous sound from the violin and clarinet, creating an uncertain mood, both wistful and hopeful. A simple phrase was regenerated in different ways, extending the character of the piece into different, interesting attitudes. Monk’s voice didn’t appear for a while, so it was all the more surprising when the electronic portion entered the performance. It was unusual and fascinating.

Jessie Montgomery’s 2013 work “Break Away” is written in five sections for string quartet. I don’t normally enjoy amplified chamber music, but the use of microphones, with the music then broadcast through speakers, seemed the right thing to do here.

The viola line in the “Songbird” movement was very pretty, and the harmonic language of “Smoke” seemed to have a pleasing influence of Benjamin Britten.  The rising lines in this section really did seem to float effortlessly into the air and disappear like smoke.

The concert concluded with Montgomery’s arrangement of Eastman’s 1979 “Gay Guerilla.” It was scored for three violins, two violas, cello, and bass. Montgomery maintained improvisational aspects of the original and explained to the audience beforehand that if you couldn’t tell that there was improvisation, that would be part of the success of the piece.

The work is about half and hour long and in the minimalist style seems to hypnotically find a stasis that slowly dissolves. Eastman enjoyed bringing politics into his music and the sudden introduction of the hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” was his way of marking the work as a gay statement.

The string players were great but in this case I wondered if the mics and speakers weren’t homogenizing the sound and in the process deemphasizing the inner voices in the ensemble. Even so, the music was powerful and thought provoking.

Just about everything about this concert seemed right. The projections at the back of the stage of scores, photos, and art added good texture to the evening, the spoken elements aided in the understanding of the music, the pre-arranged settings for different groups of musicians on different parts of the stage meant less set-up time, and even the lighting was masterfully done so as to beautifully enhance the atmosphere.

But the biggest non-musical thrill of the evening was that the concert was well attended and the audience was not merely warm in their applause, but incredibly enthusiastic. It was great to see so very many young people in the audience, and a large number stayed on for the tasty (and free) pizza and beer.

The only small misstep of the evening was a small troupe of dancers to greet folks. Some of them had the half-hearted, I’m-not-really-dancing approach mocked so relentlessly when employed by the current British Prime Minister. (Although with an early deadline for the Herald this week, she could be out by the time this is published. But her odd dance clips on Google will live on.)

The musicians of the CSO, during their recent strike, criticized management for spending such a large percentage of the budget on non-musician expenses. Is this the kind of expense they think is off the mark? Maybe the dancers were volunteers. Their artist statement explains that they are opposed to systems that “commodify the products of their labor.”

It’s hard to understand why a music presenting organization should be paying for Walmart greeters costumed like a low budget chorus from “Godspell” when such folks were nearly impossible to find, even if you looked for them, as I did for a quarter of an hour before I found one of them. I learned that she thought attending a concert was an experience that made you feel “very much alone” so they were present to offer a dance party. Am I really so odd in thinking that one of the many great joys of a live concert is the feeling in the audience when a performance is truly exciting, and that you feel that excitement not only from the musicians but in the frisson in the audience? It was the marvelous music presented by the CSO musicians, prepared so wonderfully by Mazzoli and her fellow composers, that made this a special evening. Doddering dancing in the lobby? Not so much.

There’s new music coming up here in Hyde Park. In the final concert of the season, the Grossman Ensemble, part of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Composition at the University of Chicago, presents four world premiere works by David Dzubay, Kate Soper, Steve Lehman, and Joungbum Lee. Dzubay, professor of music at the Jacobs School of Music, will also conduct the concert which takes place on Fri., Jun. 7 at 7:30 p.m. at the Logan Center (915 E. 60th St.). Visit chicagopresents.uchicago.edu.