Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Review: eighth blackbird

March 14, University of Richmond

In its current season at the University of Richmond, eighth blackbird has staged two programs testing this remark by Igor Stravinsky: "Music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all."

Last fall's "powerFUL" pushed against that notion with pieces of highly expressive and evocative, if not quite representational, character. This spring's "powerLESS" was supposed to be the counterweight, a program of works that are, in varying degrees, about "relationships of the notes themselves," as Tim Munro, eighth blackbird's flutist, puts it in a program note.

Munro was to have sung John Cage's Aria (1958) for solo voice, but after a two-week illness felt unable to handle the piece. Pianist Lisa Kaplan substituted two short works, David Lang's "Wed" and Cage's "In a Landscape," that were neither abstract nor powerless.

Another substitution: Esther Noh, a New York-based violinist auditioning to replace Matt Albert, who is leaving the group after 15 years. Albert joined the audience for the concert.

The program opened with Philip Glass' "Music in Similar Motion" (1969), one of his earliest exercises in what he calls "music with repetitive structures," which everyone else calls minimalism. Perky rhythm and the varied musical textures produced by the layering of instruments and tonal registers are the piece's principal attractions – or, if you prefer, the principal obstacles to zoning out from repetition.

The musicians played with palpable concentration (counting like mad will do that) and mechanistic energy. The sight of clarinetist Michael J. Maccaferri playing measure after measure, motionless except for breathing and moving one finger, is now my default vision of high-minimalist performance.

In Steve Reich's "Cello Counterpoint" (2003), cellist Nicholas Photinos played with a recording overdubbing the sounds of seven other cellos, played by Maya Beiser, for whom the piece was composed. Like Reich's Sextet, which the ’birds introduced in 2008 at UR and which subsequently was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Music, "Cello Counterpoint" is structured very traditionally – fast-slow-fast – and leavens Reich's familiar rhythm-centered idiom with a lyrical central section, which gave Photinos a chance to play with expressivity as well as precision.

I don't know how many classic cartoons Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez has seen over the years, but his "Five Memos" (2010) suggests he's seen – and, more importantly, heard – his share. This suite of five mostly wildly animated miniatures, one titled "Gli Uccelini del Signor Tic-Tac" ("The Little Birds of Mr. Tic-Tac"), is peppered with the tightly organized collision noise, hairpin turns and off-the-cliff-and-stationary-in-mid-air silences of the great Looney Tunes scores of Carl Stalling. Sanchez-Gutierrez's suite progresses from the jagged and fragmentary to the more tonally cohesive, but keeps its antic energy level from start to finish.

"Five Memos" and Stephen Hartke's "Meanwhile: Incidental music to imaginary puppet plays," reprised here for the second time since the ’birds introduced it at UR in 2007, were the program's big ensemble pieces, both boasting the complexity and variety on which these musicians thrive.

The group used Erica Mott's choreography for Hartke's "Meanwhile," in which the string and wind players "migrate" between the poles of pianist Kaplan and percussionist Matthew Duvall, suggesting that (to Mott, at least) the strings of the puppet master are rhythmic.

Contemporary chamber music does not offer pianists many chances to play with the lyricism and phrase-shaping of romantic or early modern music. Kaplan took full advantage of two such chances in Lang's "Wed," a deeply felt but stoic Liebestod written after the composer witnessed a wedding in which one of the spouses was dying, and Cage's "In a Landscape," a mistily impressionistic tone painting that pretty comprehensively defies every stereotype of this composer.