Thursday, March 15, 2012

Review: eighth blackbird

March 14, University of Richmond

“Less Is More,” the program that eighth blackbird presented in the final concert of its eighth season of residency at the University of Richmond, could just as easily, and perhaps more accurately, have been called “more or less.”

The six selections ranged from an
ultra-minimal composition, built from a single note, to a piece crammed with about as many sounds as six musicians can produce; and the musical energy levels ranged from the frenetic to the near-static.

The sextet – pianist Lisa Kaplan, percussionist Matthew Duval, violinist-violist Yvonne Lam, cellist Nicholas Photinos, flutist Tim Munro and clarinetist Michael J. Maccaferri – opened the program maximally, in Kurt Rohde’s “this bag is not a toy” (2011).

In Rohde’s “concerto without orchestra,” the musicians, most playing multiple instruments – among which are a water bowl, a plastic tub, clapping hands, harmonicas (with and without accordion attachments) and a paper bag – dive into a first movement that’s a hyper-energetic blizzard of colliding and overlapping tones. This gives way to a comparatively languid central movement, which is followed by a jittery finale that trails off into what the composer terms a “ghostly echo” of figures and thematic fragments from the first movement.

The program’s other large-scale offerings were a reprise of David Lang’s “these broken wings” (2007), which eighth blackbird introduced at UR in the 2008 concert that also featured the premiere of Steve Reich’s Double Sextet (which subsequently was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for music); and sextet arrangements of two of György Ligeti’s piano études (1985-94), “Fanfares” and “Automne à Varsovie (Autumn in Warsaw),” the former (by Kaplan) amplifying the prismatic tonal qualities of the original, the latter (by Munro) fleshing out the piece’s moodiness and bittersweet qualities.

The Lang piece, the most easily detachable and musically durable part of “singing in the dead of night,” a collaborative work with composers Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon and choreographer Susan Marshall, was this program’s most “classical” work in terms of form and instrumental interchange.

On first hearing four years ago, “these broken wings” struck me as a modern homage to the baroque concerto grosso; I’ll stick with that characterization, and welcome this abstract music’s liberation from the theatrical company it initially kept. The ’birds sounded to be more comfortable with the percolating syncopations of its first section and the rolling groove of its finale.

On the “less” side of this program, there were Alvin Lucier’s “Fidelio Trio” (1987), a piece in which the pianist repeatedly plays an A while the cellist and violist ever so gradually slide out of and ultimately back into that pitch, and “Durations 1” (1960), one of the shorter (10 minutes) examples of Morton Feldman’s abstract-expressionist style, in which flutist, violinist, cellist and pianist quietly play the scored notes at lengths of their choosing, producing a soundscape of subtlety and ambivalence. Both works could be called “what is music?” music, not so much musical essays as invitations for the listener to contemplate the quality and character of musical tone.

Had the ’birds polled the audience for its favorite among this program’s wildly varied selections, the winner quite likely would have been “The Body of Your Dreams” (2003) by Jacob Ter Veldhuis, a Dutch
“avant-pop” composer also known as JacobTV. In this piece, piano accompanies and expressively amplifies a manipulated tape recording of voices from a late-night television commercial for a belt that supposedly “will vibrate fat away” by jiggling tummy flab with electronic jolts. It’s hilarious both in principle and practice, and pianist Kaplan made a thoroughly merry exercise of it.