For people weaned on music by Mozart and Beethoven, it can be a courageous step to take in a concert of contemporary music. For others, like the crowd who showed up to hear the ensemble eighth blackbird play at Washington Irving High School on May 8, such concerts are cause for celebration. eighth blackbird is sort of a rock star of the new-music universe. The group performs and commissions a lot of new music; among their many credits, they were in charge of programming for California’s Ojai Music Festival in 2009, and recently they recorded Steve Reich’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Double Sextet for release on Nonesuch Records during the 2010-11 season.
The fact that Peoples’ Symphony Concerts managed to get eighth blackbird on its concert calendar this season is something of a coup—but then, all the performers on this series are top artists, and a steal at the super-cheap price of $10 per ticket. To drop a few names from the season just ended: pianists Richard Goode and Kirill Gerstein, the Juilliard, Borealis and Belcea string quartets, and Musicians from Marlboro.
On the worn-but-beautiful concert stage at Washington Irving High School, eighth blackbird’s six musicians performed works by Missy Mazzoli, Pierre Boulez, Marc Mellits, George Perle, Thomas Adès, and Stephen Hartke. The musicians—flutist Tim Munro, clarinetist Michael J. Maccaferri, violinist/violist Matt Albert, cellist Nicholas Photinos, percussionist Matthew Duvall, and pianist Lisa Kaplan—did not hand out printed program notes, but announced the works from the stage. They often pointed out things to listen for, such as the “nyah, nyah-nyah NYAH-nyah” children’s taunt in Adès’s 1991 humorous Catch, or the occasional triad sprinkled in a sea of clusters in Boulez’s 1984 Derive I. I should mention at this point that I brought my children with me to this concert—dragged them, more like. This is something one can do on Mother’s Day weekend without major consequences. They liked—we all liked—the pieces with choreographed elements, which included Catch (the name refers to a British version of the game known here as keepaway or monkey-in-the-middle) and its roving clarinetist. The six movements of the final piece, Hartke’s 2007 Meanwhile, explored the idea of different groupings in different rooms of a house, with several piano benches dotting the stage, and musicians moving into different physical configurations for each movement. Astonishingly, to me at least, they played the whole Hartke piece with no sheet music—which opens up a dramatic, more direct connection with the audience. This sort of thing should happen more often in chamber music concerts. Just watching percussionist Matthew Duvall is entertaining; slightly crouched, he resembles a runner about to begin a 400-meter race, as he navigates among a vast array of carefully laid-out drums, marimbas, and so forth. Marc Mellits’s 1995 Spam and Missy Mazzoli’s 2008 Still Life With Avalanche sounded somewhat less harsh and “experimental” (for lack of a better word) than the other pieces. We loved the icy sonorities of the opening of Mazzoli’s piece, with harmonicas, flute, and violin.
The Peoples’ Symphony concert series is not, as you might guess, some sort of response to the economic downturn—it’s been around since 1900. They’ll be back next season. Though the series has “symphony” in its name, and initially is did present orchestra concerts, the cost of producing a symphony concert became prohibitive by World War I; since then it has presented chamber music concerts and solo recitals.
Image: eighth blackbird, courtesty eighth blackbird.