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Listeners familiar with the music of composer Missy Mazzoli are unlikely to be shocked by her latest CD, Song from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt, featuring NOW Ensemble and mezzo Abigail Fischer. She's always had a way with rocking harmonies — not rocking as in "rock" — but rocking as in the gentle, queasy motion of an ocean liner. She writes well for the NOW Ensemble's unusual lineup (double bass, electric guitar, clarinet, piano, flute), but she's always known how to hit their sweet spot of antique melodic instruments and rocking (as in "rock") rhythm section.
There are only two kinds of people who will be startled by what they hear on this disc: the lucky newcomers, who've stumbled across an artist blossoming into her prime, and any Mazzoli fans who might have suspected that these now-familiar parameters of her style marked off a limited stretch of musical terrain. Song from the Uproar, Mazzoli's first opera and her grandest work, is also the strongest argument for her aesthetic.
Suddenly, from the mouths of Fischer and the vocal quartet accompanying her, those melodies reveal themselves to have been the stuff of opera all along; the choral writing is rich, strong stuff. Mazzoli's electro-acoustic palette has always been appealing, but the sound of Uproar (produced by the ever-reliable Lawson White) is solid gold. And her ever-canny instrumental writing seems positively orchestral here, building an array of changing textures from handful of instruments.
Without reading the liner notes, it seems unlikely that a listener could ever guess "plot" of the opera (the life of 19th-century explorer Isabelle Eberhardt), but that's hardly the point. Flowing from one number to the next, the music tells its own story, building to a series of emotional climaxes with the narrative assurance of a bonafide opera composer.