Saturday, November 3, 2007

Review: eighth blackbird

Nov. 2, art6, Richmond

Most cities are divided by perceptual boundaries, which inhabitants on either side are disinclined to cross. In Richmond, one of the most durable is the Beltline, a rail line and commuter highway separating older central districts from more upscale neighborhoods to the west. Central-city gentrification has blurred the line, but it remains a sturdy cultural barrier. It has separated eighth blackbird, the contemporary music sextet now in its third year of residency on the West End campus of the University of Richmond, from much of its natural local constituency.

Last night, eighth blackbird crossed the line, performing at the art6 gallery, one of the venues for the downtown First Fridays Art Walk, which has become Richmond’s most popular showcase for contemporary visual art and alternative music – and one of the prime occasions to see and be seen for the city’s young, hip and artsy.

The YH&A's responded enthusiastically, at times uproariously, to the ’birds. These musicians know how to play to a downtown crowd – that’s what they do in many of their tour engagements – and their repertory is unmistakably on the alt-side of the generational divide: upbeat, physical, quirky, whimsical, spicily sauced brain food.

In the first of two sets, pianist Lisa Kaplan, violinist Matt Albert, cellist Nicholas Photinos, flutist Tim Munro, clarinetist Michael Maccaferri and percussionist Matthew Duvall played Frederic Rzewski’s "Pocket Symphony" (2000), whose percolating energy and droll expressive touches mask a complex and fine-grained neoclassical discourse, and the movement of "Thirteen Ways" (1987) by Thomas Albert (Matt’s father) that spins variations on the theme of the Beatles’ "Blackbird."

For the late show, played before a larger and younger crowd, Kaplan, Duvall and Albert opened with the Belgian composer-filmmaker Thierry De Mey’s "Musique de Tables" (1987), a choreographed fantasia for percussive sounds hand-clapped and rubbed, patted and thumped on a tabletop (a Costco fold-up, which the ’birds favor for its subtly pebbled surface.)

Next came "The Servant of Two Masters," a frenzied, virtuosic movement for piano, violin and clarinet from Stephen Hartke’s "The Horse with the Lavendar Eye," which the ensemble will play in its entirety on Nov. 7 at the University of Richmond.

The finale was Martin Bresnik’s setting of the wry but deeply moving poem "My 20th Century" by the late Tom Andrews. Andrews’ autobiography of one-liners, which the musicians take turns delivering, unfolds over a telegraphic rhythmic figure garnished with vaguely nostalgic snippets of melody recalling the scores of Aaron Copland or Samuel Barber. (The piece could be heard as a postmodern analog to Barber’s "Knoxville, Summer of 1915.")

Richmond's downtowners audibly relished their taste of eighth blackbird. Now let’s see how many cross the Beltline for seconds.

eighth blackbird performs music of Stephen Hartke at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 7 in Camp Concert Hall of the University of Richmond’s Modlin Arts Center. Tickets: $20. Details: (804) 289-8980,