Friday, March 16, 2018

Eighth Blackbird Soars in Museum's Performance Series

By Christine Facciolo
Let’s get right to the point: eighth blackbird is the best contemporary classical chamber ensemble on earth. Maybe even in the universe.

Need proof? Since its formation by six Oberlin Conservatory students 20 years ago, it’s captured four Grammy Awards, issued seven acclaimed recordings and successfully commissioned and performed new works by composers such as David Lang, Steven Mackey, Missy Mazzoli and Steve Reich. The blackbirds also received the MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions in 2016.

Eighth Blackbird contemporary classical chamber ensemble.
Photo from
The musicians are products of some of the country’s most prestigious music schools, including Oberlin Conservatory, the Juilliard School, the Curtis Institute, Northwestern University and the University of Cincinnati-College of Music. The current roster is made up of Nathalie Joachim,  flutes; Nick Photinos, cello; Michael Maccaferri, clarinets; Matthew Duvall, percussion; Yvonne Lam, violin and Lisa Kaplan, piano.

The blackbirds didn’t need to present any credentials to please the audience at the Delaware Art Museum on Saturday, though, where they offered a program of six pieces complementing the Museum’s collection and current exhibition Eye on Nature: Andrew Wyeth and John Ruskin.

Listening to these selections was a bit like walking through a museum: In fact, many of the pieces were composed by members of the Sleeping Giant musical collective, the works having been inspired by the art featured in the Maxine and Stuart Frankel Foundation for Art. Eighth Blackbird applied the aural landscapes to the works of Wyeth and Ruskin.

Timo Andres’ Checkered Shade (2015) showed how tiny fragments of repeated material resolve into a larger pattern, in this case, an expressive chorale. Similarly, Jacob Cooper’s Cast (2015) built an aural analogue to an artistic process of absence with nostalgic gestures that trail off into a sonic encasement of Messianic-like piano chords, scratchy violin phrases and a repetitive vibraphone riff

John Luther Adams’ The Light Within (2007) offered an alluring sensory experience of the interplay of light and color through luxurious layers of sound and whimsical harmonies.

Furthering the nature connection, Duvall communicated with a tree in Matthew Burtner’s Song for Low Tree (2011). This was by far the most interesting piece on the program as evidenced by the number of concertgoers who gathered around Duvall to ask questions at intermission. Scored for a kit of wood blocks, log drum, low drum and bass drum, the piece uses interactive software to process the voice of the performer and the percussion sounds, merging these signals with tree exhalation ecoacoustics.

Robert Honstein explored the merger of the human body with the computational process in Pulse (2015) (from Conduit). Expansive lines in the flute and cello move through a cloud of asynchronous repeated notes, taking the listener right into the unseen world of the computer itself.

Duvall and Photinos gave a nod to acclaimed composer Steve Reich with a rendering of Clapping Music (1972) which sounded as fresh and unpredictable as it did when it was composed almost 50 years ago.

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