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February 22, 2005

Court Theatre provides fitting roost for eighth blackbird's experimentation

Seldom is a concert as pleasant as when the performers are clearly enjoying themselves, and this is exactly what attendees of eighth blackbird's February 15 concert were treated to. The atmosphere at the Court Theatre was relaxed, ensemble members Molly Alicia Barth and Lisa Kaplan were dressed for the occasion with matching temporary tattoos, and—oh, yes—the music was fabulous.

The sextet walked on stage and immediately launched into Jennifer Higdon's Zaka (2003), an energetic and percussive piece that engaged ensemble members in conversations with one another. At times seeming to test the limits of the instruments, as when Matthew Duvall drew a bow across a set of cymbals, and at times sounding like nothing so much as wind moving through the trees, Zaka was an exciting piece. A bit of momentum was lost during a slower movement in the middle, but just as the music began to wind down and reach a resolution, the pace picked up and the music whirled to its conclusion, hailed by Barth's piercing flute.

The second piece, Frederic Rzewski's Les Moutons de Panurge (1969), was as adorable as it was clever. Ensemble members described the story behind the piece, in which Panurge tricks a suspicious farmer as they ride a ferry together, and eventually causes all of the farmer's 65 sheep to jump into the river ("mouton" is French for sheep). A mathematical progression in the music herded all of the sheep in unison onto the ferry, and then a performer "accidentally" lost the beat, causing everyone else to begin to play at his or her own pace. The tune was jaunty and melodic, making the subsequent odd rondo pleasing to listen to.

As the rondo came to an end, a melancholy moment followed—a sort of lamentation for the imminent fate of the sheep, one imagines. In the following movement, one could hear Duvall's xylophone sheep plopping into Matthew Albert's violin river until all of the instruments came to rest on a single note. Although not the most complex piece of the evening, this was a definite pleaser with an interesting conceptual background.

The following piece, George Crumb's 1971 Vox Balaenae (The Voice of the Whale) was the highlight of the evening. Barth, Kaplan, and Nicholas Photinos came out in masks to perform this otherworldly piece under spare, blue lighting that captured the sense of being underwater. The piano roared and growled while Barth sang into the flute and Photinos truly made his cello sound like a whale. The first half of the piece brought the audience below sea level, listening both to the whale and to what one imagines the whale itself would experience in this alien world. Then the piece moved into a more lyrical, interpretative, and orchestral movement that diminuendoed into a long silence. One wonders if this silence speaks to the current endangered status of many whale species. Regardless, the effect was stunning.

That night was the Chicago premiere of two pieces. The first to be performed, Cendres (Kaija Saariaho, 1998), was a disjointed piece unified by an eerie piano theme. The different instruments sounded as though they were coming through a staticy radio when the tuner was being adjusted. Barth whispered into her flute while Photinos frenziedly played the cello, and the piano spoke in opposition to them both. "Cendres," meaning "ashes" in French, is an apt title for a piece of this haunting quality, to which eighth blackbird did ample justice.

The evening ended with the second Chicago premiere and one commissioned specifically for eighth blackbird, Derek Bermel's 2004 Tied Shifts. This piece was inspired by a trip Bermel made to Bulgaria and seems to be investigating the tensions between modern and Bulgarian music and traditional Western fare.

The violin and cello served as the foundation for this piece, with their monotonous rhythm providing a base for the more percussive xylophone, clarinet, and piccolo. Mounting tension led to an abrupt break in the music, when it rapidly shifted to a very traditional Western style featuring piano, violin and cello. The flute and xylophone then broke in, interrupting the music, and the flute led the piece back toward a more modern style and into a dramatic, pounding ending. This was a fitting finale to an exciting and thoroughly enjoyable evening with eighth blackbird.