Proms 2022: Missy Mazzoli – Violin Concerto (Procession) (European Première)

Sunday evening’s Prom included the European première (so nice to see Britain still regarded as being in Europe) of Missy Mazzoli‘s new Violin Concerto. Parenthetically subtitled ‘Procession’, the work is something of a response to the time of lockdown, examining, in Mazzoli’s words “how we use music and ritual to heal”.

The opening movement, ‘Procession in a Spiral’ is the most obvious in terms of response, setting up a fascinating environment where there’s a continual sense of progress but somehow the music keeps ending up somewhere akin to where it’s been before. The orchestra already sounds like they’re fed up with this situation at their first entry, delivering a series of heavy accents that sound like so many disheartened “Meh”s at the state of things. In contrast to this, the solo violin periodically ends up surrounded by a halo of strings, and later there’s an apparent abrupt shift in attitude, tremulous and forceful, but even this turns out not to lead somewhere new. Everything culminates not so much settled as polarised at the extremes of register.

At a risk of repeating myself – not just during Proms 2022 but, i suspect, more widely – the piece is at its least interesting when Mazzoli decides to ramp up the tempo. The second and fourth movements both pick up the pace, the former name-checking St Vitus, a legendary figure purported to have lived during the 4th century, who somehow ended up becoming the patron saint of dancers and entertainers. (He’s also supposed to “protect against lightning strikes, animal attacks and oversleeping”. No, seriously.) Mazzoli’s tribute / invocation to Vitus is the work’s most unfocused section. Fast background repetitions clarify the apparent speed, but initially arpeggio movement in the foreground (the start of a trend in the piece) becomes replaced with a great deal of activity that all sounds self-contained – not necessarily unsympathetic to everything else but nonetheless doing its own thing in its own way, semi-independently. It’s not at all clear here what Mazzoli wants us to be focusing upon, which makes for a frustrating listen.

Missy Mazzoli

‘O My Soul’ is the title of the third movement, the most simple part of the piece, which gently plays with ideas drawn from the eponymous hymn. Falling wind lines form the backdrop to this exploration, though just as it’s getting interesting Mazzoli decides to switch tack for a surprisingly mundane cadenza, largely consisting of uninteresting arpeggios (a trait of too many contemporary violin concertos). Similarly uninteresting is the following movement, ‘Bone to Bone, Blood to Blood’, the title of which references a pagan spell (one of the Merseburg charms) said to aid broken bones. The arpeggios now become the violin’s sole focus, periodically interrupted by orchestral asides but more often punctuated by short accents. The momentary occasions when the orchestra rises up increasingly become something – the only thing, in fact – to look forward to, as everything else, i.e. the soloist’s endless sawing action, could hardly be more empty.

The final movement. ‘Procession Ascending’, turns the opening on its head, now setting up an environment where the music seems to be irresistibly drawn upward. For some reason, the violin still clings to arpeggios as if to a comfort blanket, once again making the orchestra’s music the thing to look forward to, particularly towards the end as it becomes more pushy.

It’s a shame that in a so-called violin concerto the soloist’s material should persistently be so much less interesting than what the orchestra is doing. By the end – no, by halfway through, actually – i just want the soloist to shut up and allow the orchestra to have a chance to develop their way more interesting music. The historical legacy of the concerto is filled with examples where the relationship between soloist and orchestra is one of competitive tension, even of one-upmanship, but in the case of this concerto, it’s the orchestra that emphatically triumphs. If only they were given more of an opportunity to actually be heard.

The first European performance of Violin Concerto (Procession) was given by Jennifer Koh and the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Santtu-Matias Rouvali.


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Programme note

Violin Concerto (Procession) casts the soloist as a soothsayer, sorcerer, healer and pied piper-type character, leading the orchestra through five interconnected healing spells. Part one, “Procession in a Spiral,” references medieval penitential processions; part two, “St. Vitus,” is an homage to the patron saint of dancing, who could reportedly cast out evil spirits; part three, “O My Soul,” is a twisted reworking of the hymn of the same name, and part four, “Bone to Bone, Blood to Blood,” derives its name from the 9th-century Merseburg Charm, a spell meant to cure broken limbs. In the final movement, “Procession Ascending,” the soloist straightens out the spiral of the first section and leads the orchestra straight into the sky. Violin Concerto (Procession) was commissioned by the National Symphony and the Cincinnati Symphony for soloist Jennifer Koh.

—Missy Mazzoli


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