Missy Mazzoli's first big break as an orchestral composer took place right here with the Minnesota Orchestra with the same piece that the Orchestra plays in concerts on March 14 to 16. We asked Missy to tell us about that moment, what she is working on now and her thoughts on being a female composer in the classical music industry today.
Tell us about These Worlds In Us. What should we listen for in these performances?
I composed These Worlds In Us in 2006. The work is dedicated to my father and inspired by the poem The Lost Pilot by James Tate. Audience members can listen for the melodicas in the percussion section, and the way that a very simple repeated melody takes on new emotional weight as it appears in new contexts throughout the nine minutes of the work.
What do you remember from that piece’s first performance?
These Worlds In Us had its professional premiere at the 2006 Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute. This performance was my first experience with a professional orchestra and my first experience with an esteemed conductor, Osmo Vänskä. I remember being so nervous the night before the concert that I was up late obsessively going over the parts and generally worrying about every little thing. I felt like my entire career was riding on this nine-minute performance, and in a way it was! The success of that premiere, and the Orchestra’s incredible performance, led to so many opportunities in the orchestral world.
List three words that you would use to describe your own music.
Ecstatic, Dark, Fearless
What is one of your favorite career highlights thus far?
The Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute is way up there! It was also an absolute thrill to premiere my second opera, Breaking the Waves (created in collaboration with librettist Royce Vavrek) at Opera Philadelphia. That is the biggest, most ambitious work I have created to date.
What have you been listening to lately?
I’m on a big Iceland kick, loving the music of Anna Thorvaldsdottir and Daníel Bjarnason. I also recently saw the premiere of an excellent opera, Prism, by my friend Ellen Reid (produced by Beth Morrison Projects).
What are some of the joys or challenges that women composers experience today in the classical music industry?
All one has to do is look at the statistics around representation of female composers in classical music to see that this is not and has never been a welcoming field for us. In even the most forward-thinking orchestras usually a maximum of about 3% of their programming is by women, and generally there is a complete lack of racial diversity. I see change happening fastest when female administrators, music directors and artistic directors are in charge; women like Deborah Borda at the New York Philharmonic, Beth Morrison at Beth Morrison Projects, Melissa Smey at New York’s Miller Theatre and Francesca Zambello at Washington National Opera and Glimmerglass have an excellent track record of commissioning and supporting female composers. While there are many male allies who have supported me and my female peers, when the majority of decision-makers are male, the majority of composers are usually male as well. I also think that young women are discouraged from entering the field before they even start applying to college; I’m a professor at Mannes and I give masterclasses at universities around the country and I’ve only ever seen a freshman class of composers with a 50/50 gender split at Curtis, where Jennifer Higdon teaches. So, I think that in addition to hiring more women who can act as role models in positions of power, we need to really encourage very young women to enter the field by offering special support to them when they are 14, 15 and 16 years old.
Do you have any exciting upcoming or recent projects you’d like to share with us?
I’m currently working on a new opera for the Met, a ballet for the National Ballet of Canada, and also preparing for the European premiere of Breaking the Waves at the Edinburgh International Festival. Another project that’s near and dear to my heart is Luna Composition Lab, an organization I founded in 2016 with Ellen Reid in partnership with the Kaufman Music Center in New York. We provide mentorship, performances and networking opportunities to female composers ages 13 through 19.
When you aren’t composing, what do you do for fun?
I surf when the weather’s warm, and I try to see as much art in New York City as possible. But I also find composing itself to be very fun! Except when it’s torture. It’s usually one or the other.