Pianist Michael Mizrahi on NOW Ensemble’s persistent search for fresh interpretations

The contemporary classical outfit performs on Monday, February 10 at Audio For The Arts.

The contemporary classical outfit performs on Monday, February 10 at Audio For The Arts.

Photo: NOW Ensemble’s members, from left to right, Michael Mizrahi, Alex Sopp, Mark Dancigers, Alicia Lee, and Logan Coale. Photo by Sarah Holm.

For more than a decade, New York’s NOW Ensemble — Alex Sopp (flute), Alicia Lee (clarinet), Mark Dancigers (electric guitar), Logan Coale (double bass), and Michael Mizrahi (piano) — have been interpreting some of the most vividly creative and intricate voices in modern composition. Composers the group has worked with include Judd Greenstein, co-director of NOW’s longtime label New Amsterdam Records, and Missy Mazzoli, who wrote 2012’s acclaimed classical opera, Songs From The Uproar: The Lives And Deaths Of Isabelle Eberhardt.


The group’s latest release, 2019’s Spare The Rod!, is an EP of pieces composed by Yevgeniy Sharlat on the subject of disciplinarianism and condemnation of the biblical proverb that asserts to “spare the rod” would “spoil the child.” In addition to their usual quintet of instrumentation, their performances also include kazoos, recorders, and a series of music boxes lavishly hand-constructed music by Yuliya Lanina, which take inspiration from nursery rhymes, as does Spare The Rod!’s cover art.

For their show in Madison at Audio for the Arts on Monday, February 10, however, the quintet plans to forge ahead, performing three wide-ranging pieces with an emphasis on two presently unrecorded works. The first is a newly commissioned seven-movement chamber opus by award-winning Los Angeles-based composer Sean Friar, “Before And After,” which runs about 50 minutes in length. Additionally, NOW will play the eight-minute “The Tide Is In Our Veins,” by the equally renowned San Francisco-based composer Gabriella Smith. Their concluding performance of the night will be “Trust Fall,” written by Andrea Mazzariello, which can be heard on NOW Ensemble’s 2015 record, Dreamfall.

Ahead of the show, I talked with the ensemble’s pianist and managing director, Michael Mizrahi, for some insight into Friar and Smith’s compositions, NOW’s approach to performance as a chamber group, a reflection on both the recording and nostalgia on Spare The Rod!, Mizrahi’s solo piano works, and the new horizons for NOW in the first part of this decade we’ve just recently ushered in.

Tone Madison: I’d like to lead with a bit of discussion about this brand new piece that you’ll be playing but yet to record in the studio. Based on the duration of it, at 50 minutes, Sean Friar’s “Before And After” seems to be the focus. It looks like it was written between 2016 and 2019 for quintet. Is that specifically your quintet?

Michael Mizrahi: Yes, it was written specifically for NOW Ensemble with fixed instrumentation—flute, clarinet, double bass, electric guitar, and piano. And virtually all the work that we do is as that quintet. So, we’ve commissioned dozens of works over the years and realized all these albums, and it’s always that group of five instruments.

Tone Madison: I don’t know too much about Friar’s history and composition, but just based on his repertoire, he’s written for small and large ensembles. So, I’m wondering if this piece is split up into various movements that capture moods and dynamic ranges. Or is it more of a post-minimalist style that’s steady and more meditative?

Michael Mizrahi: It’s kind of all of the above. In a 50-minute work, you’re gonna get a lot of different kinds of writing. There are some minimalist and post-minimalist elements; there also are references to styles that can’t be described in either of those terms. What I really like about Sean’s music— well, first of all, we worked with him way back. He was at Princeton University [at the same time] along with a couple of the composers who are part of NOW Ensemble—Mark Dancigers and Judd Greenstein.

Princeton University regularly hosts ensembles in residencies to do readings of student pieces of their grad program. It’s one of the top programs in the country for composition. Back in 2010, which I can’t believe was now a decade ago, we did a residency at Princeton where we probably worked with eight or 10 composers and premiered their music written for us. In these residencies, there are always some pieces that really seem to fit our vibe, and some pieces less so, but it’s a great opportunity for everyone to just get to know our sound and the composers who are out there. Sean Friar wrote “Velvet Hammer” for us, and we just immediately fell in love with it. A beautiful and unique way of treating our five instruments. At that point, we had already commissioned and premiered dozens of pieces and had a kind of a sound that was post-minimalist, to use that term. But Sean wrote us music that was unlike anything that had been written for us before in terms of the timbres, the way he treated the orchestration of the ensemble. We recorded that work on our second album, Awake, which came out 2011, so you can listen to that there.

Over the last decade, we’ve kept Sean in mind, and wanted to work with him again. He approached us maybe five or six years ago with this idea and proposal for the Fromm Foundation. It’s a big foundation out of Harvard University that supports projects like large new works for chamber ensemble. We got that grant, and he embarked on this multi-year project to write for us. I think the initial idea might have been a 10- to 15-minute piece, but the ideas just kept flowing, and we workshopped different parts of it. Finally, this past fall, we got the last of it, and it’s now a seven-section piece. We’re going to go into the studio to record it about four days after our Madison show.

Tone Madison: Are you sort of testing out any ideas at the performance? Or do you have that all precisely set at this point?

Michael Mizrahi: Every performance is testing out ideas. This will actually be one of the few performances we’ve given this season where the composer is not present. After every performance—we played a bunch in the fall, and [Sean] would come to as many performances as he could, and then he would always tweak something. Sometimes change [notation] in the score. I don’t anticipate that happening four days before the session, but I think in terms of getting it in our fingers and our own interpretation as performers, we always like to play a couple shows just before going into the recording studio so it’s really fresh, and it feels like we have new ideas. It’s a little counter-intuitive. You would think you’d want inflexible ideas going in to the studio so it’s really consistent, but actually having just performed it makes it really exciting in the studio. You always try different things in the studio, also. You can decide later which takes you like the best.


Tone Madison: Moving on to the other piece you’ll be premiering for us in Madison, which is Gabriella Smith’s “The Tide Is In Our Veins.” That’s from 2015. I previously encountered her name attached to the composition “Carrot Revolution,” which was performed by the Aizuri Quartet on 2018’s Blueprinting. The beginning of that piece is fantastic. It’s very textural and interesting. It then evolves into a more elegant, epic chamber piece. I’m curious to know if there are any parallels between “Carrot Revolution” and “Tide” in terms of its ebb and flow over its eight minutes.

Michael Mizrahi: I don’t know “Carrot Revolution” very well.

Tone Madison: Oh, sorry. [laughs]

Michael Mizrahi: I could directly compare the scores, but what you just described could have been a description of “The Tide Is In Our Veins.” It has foregrounded texture and you said “ebb and flow”— that’s a perfect way to describe it. In the case of the piece, the title gives away that kind ebb and flow. It’s really one big wave over eight minutes. There’s a large crescendo and decrescendo. It’s almost a mirror image work, dissolving the same way it builds up.

Tone Madison: Sort of like an elliptical structure?

Michael Mizrahi: Yeah, or a palindrome.

Tone Madison: Have you performed anything by Smith in the past?

Michael Mizrahi: Only this piece. This is actually not a premiere. We’ve played that piece before.

Tone Madison: Oh, sure. I just meant for us in Madison. [laughs]

Michael Mizrahi: Oh, right. Neither the group nor I have played any of her work other than this piece. She also came out of Princeton, I think. We have a strong Princeton connection.

Tone Madison: Do you mind if I ask any questions about Spare The Rod! even though you won’t be performing it?

Michael Mizrahi: No, I would love to talk about it, as it’s our most recent album.

Tone Madison: I thought it would be relevant especially for anyone reading to get a real sense of your range as an ensemble, so I’ll give it a hearty recommendation.  To provide some background on the piece, at least from the description provided: It’s a commentary and attempted dismantling of the longstanding belief and, I guess biblical proverb about spoiling children if they’re not physically punished. The composer, Yevgeniy Sharlat, emphasizes the use of music boxes, which are played throughout the three compositions (“Rise,” “Play,” “Dream”), and those boxes were constructed by Yuliya Lanina. I was wondering if you’d want to describe the music boxes if they’re different from traditional ones that have been passed down through generations. If you think that would paint an interesting mental picture for listeners.

Michael Mizrahi: Sure, the music boxes themselves are quite stunning. We have videos that feature them. The music box itself is a sonic emblem of innocence. Sounds like something you remember from your childhood. Even if the melodies the music boxes play are not melodies you know, there’s a sense coming out of a music box that you’ve heard it before. Familiar and nostalgic. I think the composer, Yevgeniy Sharlat, was inspired by the music boxes and Yuliya’s aesthetic and wanted to collaborate with her. Of course he wrote all of the music, even the music box tunes [on brass cylinder and steel comb], which are actually composed. They’re not old tunes or anything like that. When the piece is performed live, the music boxes are physically placed in the center of the ensemble, and there’s a way we interact with them where we start and stop at different times in the piece. It really has a quasi-theatrical element.

Tone Madison: I wanted to isolate the second movement, “Play,” which is my favorite of the three, I think, perhaps due to the polarity of it. The use of the kazoo reminds me a lot of the composition “Platinum Rows” on Tyondai Braxton’s Central Market record if you’re familiar with that.

Michael Mizrahi: I’m familiar with the record, but I don’t know the exact sound you’re referencing.

Tone Madison: There are kazoos throughout the whole record, but I was wondering if there was any conscious overlap with that album and the sort of moody, yet absurdist dimensions that Ty takes on that album as realized by the Wordless Music Orchestra. Actually, about halfway through “Play”—when I was taking notes, I described this as “warped whimsy,” which I think also applies to Central Market. [laughs]

Michael Mizrahi: [Laughs] Wow, that’s a great pull quote. I hope you end up using that. I don’t know if Yevgeniy Sharlat would have been familiar with that album. It never came up in any of our conversations, but I would just say that there’s a kind of spirit they share in terms of their approach to this kind of whimsical instrument, the kazoo, and incorporating it into the ensemble. I did not hear that direct connection being made at any point when we were working on it.

Tone Madison: “The Duck And The Butcher” is another piece on that record prominently uses the kazoo. It’s a little more pared down. It’s not as grandiose. “Platinum Rows” has heavy orchestration.

To sort of wind things down, I wanted to talk about your solo records, most recently Currents in 2016, which also finds you performing works of other modern classical composers like Sarah Kirkland Snider and Missy Mazzoli, as I first heard NOW Ensemble on [the more operatic] Songs From The Uproar. In encapsulating everything that I’ve mentioned, are you more comfortable performing and interpreting music that was written by others in general?

Michael Mizrahi: I’m a classically trained pianist, and so part of the training is focused on interpreting others’ scores. It could be Mozart or Beethoven or contemporary music. To that end, I don’t really write any of my own music. Most of my music and performing career has been in interpreting others’ works. What I’ve been committed to doing is bringing new music into the world in the form of commissioning for both NOW Ensemble and my instrument, solo piano. Those two albums that I’ve released [The Bright Motion and Currents], and I have a third one that’s on the way, represent another chain in the long tradition of performers commissioning and inspiring composers to create. A lot of the famous works of the 19th century were inspired by specific performers. For example, all of Brahms’ clarinet music at the end of his life, or Mendelssohn violin inspired by Ferdinand David, and a number of other pieces. So there’s a long tradition of performers working closely with composers. That’s kind of how I see what I do with contemporary music, and I do see it as part of my mission as a performer to help bring new music into the world.

Tone Madison: Sure, I guess I’m just coming to this observation, because I’m used to listening to a lot of late 20th century and early 21st century music where the composers and performers are the same. That tradition shifted over time.

Michael Mizrahi: Right, it did shift, but a lot of composers were also performers. There’s always been a tradition of performers who play others’ music besides their own.

Tone Madison: Do you want to recommend or encourage people to explore any particular composers?

Michael Mizrahi: I’d like to recommend Madison audiences come to our show and check out these three composers that we’re playing [Friar, Smith]. There’s one more piece on our program by Andrea Mazzariello.

Tone Madison: Oh, yes. On the Dreamfall album.

Micahel Mizrahi: The piece is called “Trust Fall.” He’s also a longtime collaborator with the group. In terms of a general recommendation, I would simply recommend listen to an artist whose name they don’t recognize. Serendipity plays as big a role as anything in expanding one’s tastes and likes/dislikes. To challenge yourself to check out the unfamiliar.

Tone Madison: What’s next for you? You mentioned that you have another solo record in the works. What’s on the horizon for NOW in this new decade?

Michael Mizrahi: Oh, wow. The new decade. What will we be doing for the next 10 years?

Tone Madison: Well, no, not for the next 10 years. [laughs] Just a framing device, now that it’s 2020.

Michael Mizrahi: We are working with Judd Greenstein, who is a [founding] composer of NOW Ensemble, on a big new opera that he’s workshopping right now. That hopefully will be premiered in the next two or three years. Can’t say much more about it right now. We’re also going to be working with Michi Wiancko on a new piece in April. Those are the upcoming, longer-term projects.

Tone Madison: As final question for the sake of fun and trivia, is NOW an acronym?

Michael Mizrahi: It is not.

Tone Madison: It’s just stylized in CAPS.

Michael Mizrahi: That’s right.

An ode to the best and worst of Madison summers.

Eight stories over eight days, delivered directly to your inbox.

This site uses cookies to provide you with a great user experience. By continuing to use this website, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy.

Scroll to Top