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Detroit plays the muse for New York composer's 'Rouge River Transfiguration'

The Detroit News
By Michael H. Hodges

To be sure, it’s an unusual route to a piece of classical music.

Missy Mazzoli, a 32-year-old New York composer, played Detroit in 2010 while touring with her rock band Victoire. Like so many outsiders who visit Michigan’s great, struggling city, she found herself unexpectedly moved.

“We stayed in a friend’s loft by Eastern Market,” Mazzoli says by phone from Brooklyn. “Detroit was the last stop on our tour. And it was amazing. It was unlike anywhere any of us had ever been before. We all loved it.”

That visit formed the basis for “Rouge River Transfiguration,” a classical work Mazzoli wrote for the Detroit Symphony Orchestra that has its world premiere Friday and Saturday in DSO’s season finale at Orchestra Hall. Also on the program will be Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 and MacDowell’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with guest pianist Andre Watts.

Mazzoli won the 2012 Elaine Lebenbom Memorial Award — each year, the DSO commissions an original work by a woman in honor of the late Elaine Lebenbom, a teacher and composer who lived in Bloomfield Hills — which is how “Rouge River Transfiguration” came about.

Once back in New York, Mazzoli immersed herself in 1980s Detroit techno music as well as the iconic photographs of Charles Sheeler — stirring black-and-white images of the Ford Rouge complex shot in 1927. She says she was struck by Detroit’s ability to inspire a sort of religious awe, noting how often writers in the early 20th century compared the city’s factories to cathedrals.

She also quotes the recent book “Detroit City Is the Place to Be,” in which author Mark Binelli notes that “Criss-Crossed Conveyers,” the most famous of Sheeler’s Rouge photos, evokes “neither grit nor noise but instead an almost tabernacular grace. The smokestacks in the background look like the pipes of a massive church organ.” It was that image, of factory as musical behemoth, that inspired “Rouge River Transfiguration.”

If you caught the 2012 documentary “Detropia,” you’ve already heard some of Mazzoli’s music.

She calls her orchestral work a “mish-mash of several things, a chorale that comes and goes, gritty percussion and piano patterned on top of that — all colliding with the sort of heavy chorale chords.” She laughs and admits it’s hard to put into words.

Key musical influences, Mazzoli says, include minimalism, 19th-century Romanticism, techno and indie rock.

“Because of who I am as a musician,” she adds, “I feel free to pull the best out of all these worlds. I love the emotional directness and connection of a pop song. I love the complexity and color and possibilities in modern classical music.”