Friday, March 21, 2014

Review: eighth blackbird

March 19, University of Richmond

The new-music sextet eighth blackbird – with a substitute percussionist, Doug Perkins, filling in for an ailing Matthew Duvall – presented “Still in Motion,” a vaguely ominous potpourri of recent works, to close out its performances in the 10th season of its residency at the University of Richmond.

The dark tones of “Murder Ballades” by Bryce Dessner (better known as guitarist of the rock band The National), the sextet “Old Kings in Exile” (2011) by Brett Dean and “Last Exit,” a piece by the ’birds’ flutist, Tim Munro, were offset by the productively zany “whirligig,” a four-hands piano work by the ensemble’s pianist, Lisa Kaplan, and by a post-concert “Musicircus” featuring the ’birds and UR faculty and student musicians in an hour-long homage to the all-bets-are-off/noise-is-good aesthetic of John Cage.

“Murder Ballades,” written last year for eighth blackbird, recasts a set of traditional ballads about what Dessner calls “romantically charged killings” (“Pretty Polly” and “Brushy Fork” are the most familiar) in a style that could be called neoclassical ragtime, filtered through the sonic and rhythmic prism of the 1920s works of Igor Stravinsky and the composers of France’s Les Six, and garnished with a couple of references-in-passing to the da-da-da-dum “fate” motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

Given the work’s plentiful syncopation and Anglo-American ballads as source material, you might expect echoes of bluegrass; but Dessner somehow avoids that, creating instead an interplay between “old-time” string-band harmonics and tonal hues and the jittery angularity of modernism.

Despite the murder theme – the composer says the piece was inspired in part by the Aurora and Newtown killing sprees – the haunting “Dark Hollow” is the only section that sounds truly bleak or frightening. (At least to me: Having been immersed in this kind of fatalistic folk music since childhood, I may scare less easily than folks from other places.)

The sextet by Dean, a onetime Berlin Philharmonic violist who has become perhaps the most prominent contemporary composer from Australia, occupies a darker and dreamier space. Its muted prelude and and more complex and expressive epilogue bracket a “double trio,” contrasting strings and winds, and providing quite a showcase of technique for flutist Munro and clarinetist Matthew J. Maccaferri. The central section’s frenzied pace and intricate, jagged voicings at times suggest a fireflies’ sabbath, at other times fairies dancing on broken glass.

Munro’s “Last Exit,” inspired by the poem of that name by the Australian Sam Wagan Watson, evokes what the flutist calls the “dark, dirty, dangerous” environment of Brisbane in the 1970s. (More recently, he noted, the coastal city has become “Miami down under.”) Scored for solo flute(s) with recorded manipulations of flute sounds (some barely recognizable as such), the piece is full of wind-and-water effects and is nocturnal in character, painting a mind’s-ear picture of a waterfront scene in an updated version of film noir.

Kaplan’s “whirligig,” written last year for a four-hands piano date with composer Nico Muhly, was played on this occasion by eight hands, Kaplan’s and those of violinist Yvonne Lam, percussionist Perkins and cellist Nicholas Photinos, each taking a turn in its three sections. Slapstick pervades the piece – its physical premise is the “invasion of each other’s space” by pianists scrunched together on a bench, crossing hands and otherwise “getting in the way.” Its style is predominantly a kind of prismatic boogie-woogie in the outer sections, with a subtler, more delicate central section. It’s fun to hear, and more fun to watch.

The ’birds rounded out the program with “Duo for Heart and Breath” (2012) by the Canadian Richard Parry, another composer coming out of indie-rock (he plays in the band Arcade Fire). The work can be heard as being quite literal – the violinist plays long notes while breathing audibly into a microphone, while the pianist (wearing a stethoscope) elaborates on a two-note, lub-dub motif. The collective effect of these sounds, however, is more ambiguous and stimulating to the imagination.