Thursday, September 17, 2009

Review: eighth blackbird

Sept. 16, University of Richmond

Launching its sixth season in residence at the University of Richmond, the contemporary music sextet eighth blackbird offered a sampler of six pieces, three of them in first or second performances by this group, all of them posing unusual demands on the musicians’ techniques and attentiveness to the playing of their colleagues.

The ’birds named the program for its most accessible work, Marc Mellits’ “Spam” (1995), a tuneful, mostly exuberant opus in which layered minimalist figures coalesce into a kind of latter-day boogie-woogie, and then trail off into a wistful climax.

A similar tone, but with spikier harmonic language and more complex textures, pervades “Grazioso” by Mark-Anthony Turnage. Introduced this summer at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, which commissioned the piece for eighth blackbird, the piece is one of a series written by the English composer under the influence of the iconic 1970s rock band Led Zeppelin. (The title refers to the name of Jimmy Page’s guitar.) “[T]here is a very slight allusion to the group’s 1971 ‘Black Dog,’ ” Turnage writes, as well as a vaguely bluesy harmonic tint throughout the piece; but its syncopated rhythms and bright voicings might just as readily be heard as an homage to 1920s jazz.

Much subtler technique, especially in string parts, and finer balances among instruments were needed in the four other works of this program – particularly in “Toward the Flame,” a new piece by the Newport News-bred, Chicago-based composer Shawn Allison. This four-part work, evoking four kinds of moths, is full of fine-grained, fluttering figures for flute, violin and cello, supported by atmospheric percussion. At its best, the piece conjures tonal magic. Its third section, “Atlas,” sounds like an orchestral tone poem in a germinal stage.

“The Deserted Churchyards” (1990) by the Danish composer Bent Sørensen, inspired by visits to abandoned coastal churches about to be consumed by the North Sea, is tone poetry in more fragmentary form – indeed, it sounds to be more fragment than form, at least on first hearing. Its instrumental writing is very busy but generally cyclical, producing movement without a clear destination. Rather astringent voicings for flute and clarinet echo the late work of Carl Nielsen, the great early modern Danish composer.

The other two works on this program were more playful. In Mayke Nas’ “Twelve Hands” (2008), six musicians produce “moaning, giggling and groaning,” as the composer puts it, by stroking and striking the innards of a piano with brushes, spoons, coffee strirrers and other implements, and by scraping cards along the edges of the keyboard. No sounds are produced by actually depressing the keys or pedals of the piano. In this performance, percussive effects came off nicely, but string resonance was quite muted. A concert grand doesn’t sound like the ideal instrument for this piece. How might it sound played on a lighter keyboard, such as a fortepiano or harpsichord? Or, better yet, on a harp positioned horizontally?

“Catch” (1991) by Thomas Adès is two games at once: Musical tag, with “it” played by a clarinetist flitting around the stage, hovering briefly over a pianist, violinist and cellist; and name-the-mystery-composer haunting the piece, a pastime that Adès sometimes pursues in his chamber music. I caught distinct whiffs of Brahms in the clarinet writing and its role in the ensemble, and more faint aromas of some English pastoralist – Butterworth, maybe?

The ’birds – pianist Lisa Kaplan, violinist Matt Albert, cellist Nicholas Photinos, flutist Tim Munro, clarinetist Michael J. Maccaferri and percussionist Matthew Duvall – negotiated this ever-shifting musical terrain with their usual technical mastery and uncanny sensitivity to the tone and spirit of the music at hand.