A Provocative, Talented Sextet Turns the Curious into Fans

United StatesUnited States  Andres, Reich, Hearne, Coleman, Dessner: eighth blackbird, Presented by Cincinnati Chamber Music, Corbett Auditorium, University of Cincinnati, Cincinnati, Ohio. 29.9.2015 (RDA)

Timo Andres: Checkered Shade
Steve Reich: Piano Phase
Ted Hearne: By-By Huey
Valerie Coleman: Danza de la Mariposa
Bryce Dessner: Murder Ballades

eighth blackbird: Matthew Duvall (percussion), Nicholas Photinos (cello), Lisa Kaplan (piano), Nathalie Joachim (flutes), Michael J. Maccaferri (clarinets), Yvonne Lam (violin and viola)

I know noble accents 
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;   
But I know, too,   
That the blackbird is involved   
In what I know.   

–Wallace Stevens, from “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”

In fascinating music, eighth blackbird alternatively delighted, amused, entertained, annoyed, provoked, and stimulated, during the Corbett Auditorium concert that opened the venerable Cincinnati Chamber Music’s 89th season. Ultimately the group turned some of the listless into the curious, and some of the curious into fans.

The six-member ensemble was born in Ohio at Oberlin College, then came of age at the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music where they did a three-year residence gestating their style, amassing repertory, commissioning new works, and bringing home several Grammy awards. Now the former cheeky undergrads from Ohio’s notoriously free-wheeling college are respected members of the musical establishment, as the group hits its 20th anniversary (and some of its members turning 40 any day now). But fear not, the six-strong ensemble is as talented, unpredictable, outrageously original, and in-your-face as ever.

Jointly commissioned by Carnegie Hall and by the Stuart and Maxine Frankel Foundation (based on art from the Frankel collection), Checkered Shade is an intriguingly complex work by Timo Andres, a young New York-based composer and pianist, and member of the composer collective Sleeping Giant. Inspired by the art of Edward Gorey, Andres used musical pointillism, with a variety of colors and daunting contrapuntal twists and turns, all impeccably executed by the group.

When I revisit Music for 18 Instruments or Music for Double Sextet, I am again fascinated by Steve Reich’s inexhaustible inventiveness. Though Reich says he hates to be called a “minimalist” composer, minimalism accurately describes the almost half-century-old Piano Phase. Lasting twenty minutes, its unrelenting repetitivenes can either coax believers into a trance-like musical nirvana, or send the unnerved running up the aisles. For this version, Matthew Duvall and Lisa Kaplan crouched on two tiny benches, playing the piece on two toy pianos.

Also a member of Sleeping Giant, Ted Hearne wrote By-By Huey, a memorial to the slain Black Panther leader, Huey Newton. Inspired by a painting of a praying mantis poised over the likeness of the fallen dissident, as if set to devour him, the piece is angry and angular. Metaphorically, the prominent and percussive piano part, powerfully done by Lisa Kaplan, devours everything in its inexorable path, all but obliterating the rest of the group, who repeatedly mute certain notes in their instruments.

Valerie Coleman’s Danza de la Mariposa (The Dance of the Butterfly) gave flutist Nathalie Joachim an opportunity to shine. Inspired by a visit to South America, Coleman sonically celebrates the colors and flying patterns of the many butterflies that inhabit our southern hemisphere. Using every trick of the trade – glissandos, trills, tongue-flutters, “bending” notes to achieve quarter-tones, changing embouchure – the brief work journeys seamlessly from the Andean heights to the urban River Plate, replete with melodic snippets. Ms. Joachim played with flair and dazzling technique.

Bryce Dessner’s 2013 Murder Ballades inhabits the world of folk song elevated to concert hall status. But these are not my grandfather’s folk songs. They are wordless ballads inspired by grisly, violent, real-life stories about women murdered by men. Piano, violin, cello, flute, clarinet and percussion imitate the sound of the instruments likely to have played this style of narrative ballad in some Apalachian porch back in the day.

Regardless of what they play, the protean members of eighth blackbird attain, in Wallace Stevens’ words, “noble accents and lucid, inescapable rhythms.”

Rafael de Acha

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