Missy Mazzoli’s ‘Orpheus Undone’ receives superb debut by CSO, Muti

“Orpheus Undone” is an intriguing, entrancing work with just the kind of fresh, imaginative sound world that we have come to expect of Mazzoli.

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Composer Missy Mazzoli acknowledges the audience following a performance of the world premiere of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s commission of her work, “Orpheus Undone,” on Thursday night at Symphony Center.

Composer Missy Mazzoli acknowledges the audience following a performance of the world premiere of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s commission of her work, “Orpheus Undone,” on Thursday night at Symphony Center.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

With such notable milestones as her designation as Musical America’s 2022 composer of the year and a commission from New York’s Metropolitan Opera for her fifth work in the form, Missy Mazzoli has taken her place as one of the major composers of her generation.

Local audiences got to know the 41-year creative talent in 2018-21, when she served as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s composer-in-residence, a position that heightened her international profile even more.

One of her crowning achievements of that time, a commission titled “Orpheus Undone,” was supposed to premiere in April 2020 but had to be delayed because of the COVID-19 shutdowns. The 15-minute work finally received its world premiere Thursday evening in the first of three concerts with conductor Riccardo Muti, and it proved well worth the wait.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra; Riccardo Muti, conductor

CSO review

When: 1:30 p.m. April 1 and 7:30 p.m. April 5

Where: Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan

Tickets: $32-$225

Info: cso.org


It was constructed from musical fragments left over from Mazzoli’s 2019 ballet, “Orpheus Alive,” which she has described as a “messed-up retelling of the Orpheus myth.” This smaller orchestral work zeroes in on that moment when Eurydice dies and Orpheus decides to follow her into the underworld.

In her program notes, Mazzoli writes that she wanted to explore the “baffling and surreal stretching of time in moments of trauma and agony.” And that sense comes through clearly in this work, starting in the percussion with insistent, disturbing quarter-note taps on a wood block and steel brake drum–tick tock, tick tock, tick tock.

This ominous, unsettled and almost eerie piece, with its two interconnected movements, comes off as kind of organized disorganization. It is undone, as the title suggests, almost collapsing at times into a cacophonous chaos, with the strings bowing almost out of control.

Nothing really flows, nothing comes to together until the last five minutes or so, when longer, more defined musical lines emerge in the vibraphone and elsewhere, but there is never really anything that could really be called a resolution.

Instead, there are intersecting, overlapping bursts of sound–disorienting dips, slides and wavers and big, isolated, stereophonic chords. The piano (capably played by Peter Henderson, primary ensemble pianist for the St. Louis Symphony) enters prominently at times, but it seems lost, its solos oddly unsteady and aimless and weirdly repetitive.

Maestro Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 2 in C Minor on Thursday night at Symphony Center.

Maestro Riccardo Muti leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 2 in C Minor on Thursday night at Symphony Center.

© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Despite all the seeming disunity, there is a unity to this work, a definite sense of drive and build-up. As a whole, “Orpheus Undone” is an intriguing, entrancing work with just the kind of fresh, imaginative sound world that we have come to expect of Mazzoli.

The Chicago Symphony lavished the same care and attention on this new creation as it would on some prized masterpiece from the past, with Muti skillfully negotiating its every unsteady twist and turn and drawing forth its full emotional impact.

The orchestra moved back into familiar territory for the second part of the first half, offering its first performances of Gustav Mahler’s “Rückert-Lieder,” a 1901-02 set of five settings of poems by Friedrich Rückert for voice and orchestra.

Mahler is one of the great composers of art song, and this grouping includes a few of his finest examples including the meditative “I am lost to the world,” with touching solo work here by English horn player Scott Hostetler, and the culminating “At midnight.”

Making her Chicago Symphony debut as soloist was Latvian-born singer Elīna Garanča, with her dark-hued mezzo-soprano voice and probing, introspective approach suiting these songs well. She was at her best in the doleful “At midnight,” as she returned to the title’s repeated phrase, each time with a slightly altered vocal shading and delivery reflecting the subtly shifting emotions of pathos and regret.

The second half was devoted to Anton Bruckner’s hourlong Symphony No. 2 in C minor, and Muti and the orchestra delivered a resounding and masterful take, deftly highlighting every peak and valley of this sweeping musical journey and making sure listener attention never flagged.

With these concerts, Muti and the orchestra have presented six of Bruckner’s 11 symphonies, including a June 2016 set of performances of the Symphony No. 9 that was released as a live recording on the CSO Resound label.

There were highlights aplenty from the bright, kinetic take on the third movement Scherzo to the subtle drama of the slow second movement, with every instrumental section getting moments in the spotlight along the way, including the orchestra’s first-rate if sometimes overlooked double-bass players.

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