Women at the Symphony (Part 2): Missy Mazzoli and Women in Composition

While contemplating the problem of women’s underrepresentation in orchestra seasons (see Part 1 here), I had the absolute pleasure of sitting down with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Mead Composer-in-Residence Missy Mazzoli. Mazzoli has one of the most exciting careers of any composer working today; her work is performed all over the world, prominent artists have recorded her music, and among her many accolades she has premiered three very successful and well-received operas.

As composer-in-residence, Mazzoli curates the CSO’s contemporary chamber music series, MusicNOW, and she’ll write a piece for full orchestra which will be premiered during the CSO’s 2019/20 season.

I asked Mazzoli why orchestras play so little music by women. She acknowledged that the canon of music typically played by orchestras includes very few women due to historical biases against women, but in her mind the real problem is that when orchestras do play new music, very little of that music is by women.

“Within the works that orchestras are commissioning and performing of living composers, the number of women is still relatively low,” she says. “The simplest answer is just to program them. There are plenty of living female composers who are writing excellent orchestral work, or more importantly, would, if given the opportunity, write an amazing orchestral piece.”

Mazzoli brought up the proof vs. potential problem (written about by Sheryl Sandberg in “Lean In”), in which men tend to be given opportunities based on potential while women are given opportunities based on proof or past experience. But, as Mazzoli points out, “If they’re never given the opportunity to write for an orchestra, they don’t have a whole catalog of orchestral work that can serve as proof.”

In the field of composition, Mazzoli says there’s nothing that can match the prestige of a major work for orchestra or opera. “In a composer’s career, audiences respond to big stuff. You can write a million string quartets and people will politely clap, and you can write one killer eight-minute orchestra piece and your career is launched. Nothing can ever replace the prestige of having a work performed in [Orchestra Hall], conducted by Riccardo Muti.”

So why are commissions and opportunities going to men? It comes down to who’s doing the selecting. Says Mazzoli, “It’s a human tendency to want to support young people who remind you of yourself. I see a lot of young white men who get catapulted with these major opportunities in their early 20s, and I have literally never seen a young woman given those same opportunities. I can’t think of a single woman under 25 who’s been given a major opera or orchestra commission. I can think of like five dudes. Those men deserve it. So do those women.”

CSO Mead Composer-in-Residence Missy Mazzoli welcomes the audience at the August 2018 MusicNow concert. Todd Rosenberg Photography

When programming a season, Mazzoli encourages orchestras to take a hard look at the short lists for music by living composers. “There are so many considerations that go into programming a piece, and obviously quality is the most important thing.  But I find that women encounter many more obstacles before even getting their names and their work in front of artistic directors, so often organizations are working from a lopsided shortlist, a pool of composers in which women are not adequately represented. I encourage organizations to commit themselves to having a short list, a preliminary pool of composers that is 50/50 split in terms of gender. And if that’s hard, I encourage them to take a calm look at why.  I’d hope that any organization would be curious about where in the system it’s breaking down for women.”

“That’s what I’m trying to do with MusicNOW,” she adds.  “In giving all these women their first opportunity with members of the CSO, hopefully that is a way in to the orchestral field.”

The current season of MusicNOW, programmed by Mazzoli, easily adheres to her 50% rule. The final concert of the season in May includes music by Meredith Monk (arranged by Mazzoli) and Jessie Montgomery.

In the Civic Orchestra we recently recorded nine brand new orchestra pieces written by doctoral students at the University of Chicago. Seven of the nine composers were men. It made me wonder if fewer women are choosing to enter the field of composition.

I asked Mazzoli about her experience teaching composition, and she confirmed that she very rarely sees composition classes with as many women as men. She worries that during the teenage years when people typically decide to pursue music, women don’t feel welcome in composition. Her solution: “Putting more women in charge at the very top and giving extra support to teenagers who identify as female and who are interested in composition.”

In 2016 Mazzoli and fellow composer Ellen Reid founded Luna Lab, a mentorship program for women composers ages 13-19. Participants keep in touch with composition mentors all year by Skype, and come together in New York for a five day festival during which they will see rehearsals and performances of their own work, go on a backstage tour of the Met Opera House and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and meet fellow women in composition. “It’s an immersion in the new music community so that they feel like it’s their home; that they are a welcome, celebrated part of it.” Mazzoli hopes that the mentorship relationships formed through Luna Lab will provide support, advice, and letters of recommendation for the young composers, and will ultimately lead to more women going into the field of composition.

When it comes to programming an orchestra season, final decisions are made by the music director. But according to Mazzoli, “Everyone has a unique power. Audiences have more power than they think when it comes to advocating for change and impacting decisions made by boards and administrations. Fellow composers, especially male allies, have more power than they think when it comes to advocating for their female colleagues.”

As for instrumentalists, “performers have a lot of power when it comes to bringing works to a larger audience. In terms of gender and racial diversity in the field, to seek out these people who are writing exciting work. Seek them out, make friends, and perform that work, and talk to your music directors about these people.”

By Civic Fellow and viola Rebecca Boelzner

See the final MusicNOW concert of the season on May 20 at 7:00 PM in the Harris Theater.

Learn more about Luna Lab at https://www.kaufmanmusiccenter.org/ftm/luna-lab/

TOP: Composer Missy Mazzoli poses against the New York skyline. Marylene Mey photography.