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Inside the Music

“It Was Life-Changing”: Missy Mazzoli’s Music Comes Full Circle

Onstage at Orchestra Hall, Missy Mazzoli standing, writes on a music part on the stand of Jorja Fleezanis, who is seated and holding her violin.
During the fall 2006 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute, Missy Mazzoli confers with then-Concertmaster Jorja Fleezanis, who passed away in 2022 | Photo by Greg Helgeson

In the Minnesota Orchestra’s 120-year history, there have been few concerts quite like the one on December 1, 2006, at which performers and audiences alike sensed the great degree to which something utterly new, important and more than a little audacious was happening. For the first time, the Orchestra’s Composer Institute concluded with a public concert, with then-Music Director Osmo Vänskä leading nine new works that had never been performed by a major orchestra, written by nine little-known composers at the start of their careers. The concert previewed and influenced classical music’s future, and it changed the lives of a few in Orchestra Hall that evening.

At that time it was atypical, if not unprecedented, for a major American orchestra to present an entire program of new music by upstart composers—particularly with the music director on the podium, rather than an assistant or guest conductor—due in part to the challenge of attracting an audience more accustomed to the “classics.” In a successful drive to fill seats, the Orchestra’s marketers billed the concert “Future Classics,” suggesting that though the music was new, it would have long staying power. A dozen more Composer Institute-capping performances would follow over the next decade and a half—but all of that depended on the success of the first.

Vänskä’s initial downbeat that night brought forth music that has indeed stuck around: Missy Mazzoli’s These Worlds In Us, the Pennsylvania-born composer’s first piece for orchestra and one that is deeply personal. Dedicated to her father, it ruminates on his service the Vietnam War. These Worlds In Us was declared the audience favorite of the evening by The New York Times, and it received repeat performances on the Orchestra’s main subscription series in both 2008 and 2019. Blogging for NewMusicBox shortly after the 2006 performance, Mazzoli stated that “Participating in this [Composer] Institute was the single most important thing I have ever done as a composer, not only for the performance but also for the long love affair with the orchestra this week has inspired. Now the real work begins.”

Eleven people (nine composers, Music Director Osmo Vänskä and Minnesota Orchestra staff member Beth Cowart) standing onstage at Orchestra Hall following a concert as a twelfth person (Composer Institute Director Aaron Jay Kernis) stands in front of them, speaking into a microphone.
Missy Mazzoli, third from left, with fellow Composer Institute participants, Music Director Osmo Vänskä and Orchestra staff member Beth Cowart at a Q&A session led by Composer Institute Director Aaron Jay Kernis after the December 2006 Future Classics concert | Photo by Greg Helgeson

In the 17 years since, Mazzoli’s “real work” has paid off at the highest levels of the classical music world, with her works garnering performances by major orchestras, chamber ensembles and soloists around the globe. A Grammy nomination arrived in 2019 for her violin work Vespers, and commissions have come from the likes of the Metropolitan Opera, Washington National Opera, Los Angeles Philharmonic and BBC Symphony Orchestra, as well as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, for which she composed several works while serving as composer in residence. She also wrote original works for the acclaimed Amazon Prime Video series Mozart in the Jungle. Alongside her composing activities, she has maintained an active career as a pianist and keyboardist, performing frequently with the band Victoire—which has played and recorded many of her compositions since she founded the group in 2008.

Mazzoli continues to hold her Composer Institute experience in high regard. In recent comments, she recalls that “it was the first time I’d heard one of my works performed by a professional orchestra and it was life-changing.” She adds that the most valuable things she picked up involved more than just hearing her music. “I learned so much about how to communicate effectively with players—everything from what adjectives to use in a violin part to what to say in a stressful rehearsal.” Although she states that the Future Classics concert is her best memory of the week, others have stuck as well: “I remember going bowling with the other composers, and not dressing properly for the frigid Minnesota weather.”           

Frigid weather will again be swirling outside Orchestra Hall as the Minnesota Orchestra performs another Mazzoli composition, Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres), from February 23 to 25 as part of a program of all-American repertoire conducted by Dalia Stasevska that also features music by Leonard Bernstein and William Dawson. In contrast to the inward-looking These Worlds In Us, Mazzoli’s Sinfonia—which was commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic and premiered by that ensemble in 2014—is music that found its inspiration on an astronomical scale. She explains: “Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) came out of an idea I had to write a piece in the shape of a solar system. At first I had no idea what that meant, I just felt that it was a satisfying form. After a lot of sketching I ended up writing a piece consisting of small loops within larger loops, like rotations within a larger orbit.”

Like the looping path of a planet, Mazzoli’s orchestral music has come full circle to Orchestra Hall: from the Minnesota Orchestra being the first professional orchestra to play it in 2006, to now performing one of her more recent works. Audiences can bundle up for weather that’s guaranteed to be warmer than deep space and then hear Mazzoli’s Sinfonia in the balmy confines of the Hall—surely one of many works of hers that will be heard here in the years ahead.

Tickets are available for the Minnesota Orchestra’s concerts on February 23, 24 and 25, featuring Mazzoli’s Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres), Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade on Plato’s “Symposium” and William Dawson’s Negro Folk Symphony, with Concertmaster Erin Keefe featured as soloist in the Bernstein work and conductor Dalia Stasevska making her Minnesota Orchestra debut leading the program.