Thursday, September 16, 2010

Review: eighth blackbird

Sept. 15, University of Richmond

The contemporary music sextet eighth blackbird is bracketing its seventh year of residency at the University of Richmond with two programs testing the validity of a comment by Igor Stravinsky: "Music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all." (The group, wisely, is leaving it to others to gauge the sincerity of Stravinsky’s remark.)

The first of the two programs, "Powerful," presents two works with overt political overtones, Frederic Rzewski’s "Coming Together" (1972) and John Corigliano’s "Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan" (2000), along with John Luther Adams’ "The Light Within" (2007), which could be called political only if a work of highly abstracted nature evocation stirs your partisan juices. (I’m sure it stirs somebody’s – everything else does.)

Corigliano’s song cycle, originally for voice and piano, later orchestrated, now introduced in a version tailored to eighth blackbird’s instrumentation, must have few precendents. The composer takes Dylan at his word but not his music, treating his song lyrics as if they were poems without any reference to the tunes for which the words were written. (Corigliano says he had not heard Dylan’s songs before writing this set. Getting through the late 20th century without encountering "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Blowin’ in the Wind" or "All Along the Watchtower" seems unthinkable, but there was a time when highbrow composers were oblivious to popular music.)

Dylan’s folk-derived song style is strophic (i.e., the tune repeats itself), which imposes regular, generally simple meters on his lyrics. Corigliano’s music is through-composed with little if any repetition and considerable variance in meter; so in these settings Dylan’s words are stretched, compressed and sometimes broken into fragments of key words or phrases for extra expressive effect. The anger and passion of some lyrics, such as those of "Masters of War," are far more vivid in Corigliano’s settings than in Dylan’s original, folky sing-song tunes; in more anthemic material, such as "Chimes of Freedom," the musical distance between the two composers is narrower.

Corigliano forms an effective personal-political arc through the cycle, making it a kind of coming-of-age emotional scrapbook of the 1960s. As he wrote for an operatic voice – originally soprano Sylvia McNair; here, mezzo-soprano Katherine Calcamuggio – it’s not surprising that the most effective of his Dylan settings are those that can made into monodramas (notably, the autobiographical "Clothes Line") or can be delivered at operatic extremes of passion or tenderness.

Calcamuggio sang with operatic heft and emotiveness, leavened judiciously with a more straight-toned, quasi-folk style. The ’birds – violinist Matt Albert, cellist Nicholas Photinos, flutist Tim Munro, clarinetist Michael J. Maccaferri, pianist Lisa Kaplan and percussionist Matthew Duvall – brought out Corigiliano’s broad palette of tone colors and reveled in his often complex mixture of instrumental voicings.

The musicians achieved similar results in "Coming Together," Rzewski’s setting of part of a letter written by Sam Melville, an inmate at New York’s Attica State Prison who helped organize, and subsequently died in, suppression of the riot and hostage-taking that occurred there in 1971.

Rzewski leans heavily on the contradiction between Melville’s sunny words ("I am in excellent physical and emotional health. . . . I can act with clarity and meaning") and his violent environment and ultimate fate, creating a miniature drama of a soul breaking under extreme stress. Matt Albert’s 2003 arrangement of the piece for eighth blackbird amplifies that drama by enlarging the narrator’s role to several voices, often in combination.

"The Light Within" is an internalized expression of John Luther Adams’ preoccupation with light, space and other natural elements. The piece wraps its instrumentation – broad-breathed, sighing phrases by strings and winds, more elaborate figures for piano and percussion – in electronic sound to create what the composer calls an "aura." Its contemplative, almost motionless and sonically dense qualities were helpfully augmented (partially offset?) by the ’birds’ intensely focused performance.