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Missy Mazzoli is a symphonic composer with a photographer's eye

Missy Mazzoli's new album, <em>Dark with Excessive Bright</em>, features the composer's orchestral compositions.
Caroline Tompkins
/
courtesy of the artist
Missy Mazzoli's new album, Dark with Excessive Bright, features the composer's orchestral compositions.

When Missy Mazzoli was just 10 years old, growing up in rural Pennsylvania, she confidently declared she was a composer, although she hadn't written a single note. Her family thought it was a phase she would get through. Now 42, Mazzoli is among today's busiest and most respected composers. She's best known for her operas, such as the career-boosting Breaking the Waves, but a new album, titled Dark with Excessive Bright, is the first to showcase the young composer's purely symphonic music.

Armed with an orchestra full of instruments, and a penchant for unusual harmonies, Mazzoli conjures peculiar sounds. In her Sinfonia, subtitled "For Orbiting Spheres," she calls for harmonicas in three different keys to produce wheezy, other worldly tones. She says it sounds like a "hurdy-gurdy flung recklessly into space."

After Mazzoli's childhood piano lessons came gigs in punk bands and composition classes at Yale. These days, she navigates Carnegie Hall debuts and commissions, such as the titular Dark with Excessive Bright, a lyrical violin concerto inspired by a very old double bass which sat in an Italian monastery for centuries and whose cracks were patched with pages from the Good Friday liturgy.

The concerto riffs on baroque formulas while recycling motifs in fresh disguises. Like a photographer, Mazzoli captures moments rich in texture and charged with expression. They are hard to describe, but you can see them in your ear. For example, after the orchestra slides up to a cadence, low strings pluck the beat, high strings twinkle with glitter, and in the middle, a melody wanders a solitary path. (As a fascinating bonus, the album includes a reduced version of the piece for solo violin and string quintet.)

So far, Mazzoli's greatest success has come in the opera house. On the heels of Breaking the Waves, she (along with Jeanine Tesori) was the first woman to be commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera. Her latest opera, The Listeners, is a psychological nail-biter set in southern California. And while this album is purely symphonic, drama abounds in the music. Mazzoli dedicates the piece These Worlds in Us to her father, a Vietnam vet. Sometimes the music swirls downward on sliding string figures while other passages prove that Mazzoli knows how to make an orchestra roar like a jet engine.

Coming of age in a DIY environment, and encouraged by outfits like the Bang on a Can collective of composer-performers, Mazzoli is at home using rock instruments and electronics in her music. On Vespers for Violin, played with ardor and agility by Peter Herresthal, Mazzoli sampled old organs, strings and voices, and waterlogged them in distortion.

Mazzoli likes to think of herself as primarily an opera composer. But with instrumental music as expressive and rigorously built as this — not to mention the dynamic performances here by the Bergen and Arctic Philharmonic Orchestras — we kindly ask that she not forget the command she holds over a symphony orchestra.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga
Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.