Eighth blackbird comes to town

What, I ask, is the difference between a “concert” and a “show?”

When my friends say that they are going to a show, they mean that they’re going to see Phish, or Britney Spears, or even Joshua Redman. If you’re going to a show, you’re going to an environment where you’re allowed to move in your seat while the music is playing, to clap in the middle of pieces or even let loose a few cries of affection for the players on stage.

A concert is a different world. The only thing you hear at a concert is applause and the occasional “bravo.” The act of shifting your weight, even during a drawn-out Mahler symphony, is met with looks of disdain. Coughing is prohibited. Silence is golden.

It’s hard, sometimes, to remember where certain traditions come from, especially those that seem stupid on the surface. Friday night, contemporary music ensemble eighth blackbird gave a concert in Chapin Hall that helped to jog my memory. The audience was quiet, not out of respect for tradition, but out of respect for the wonderful performance that we had the privilege of hearing.

The eighth blackbird ensemble is comprised of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, percussion and piano. All of the members went to Oberlin, where the ensemble was formed. There’s a great cohesive energy that they carry into their playing; this is not a mercenary ensemble, patched together based on “talent,” but a group of friends who have grown together, musically. I had an opportunity to have dinner with the members on Wednesday night, and I can only say that it’s nice to know that there are some cool people involved in the world that I hope to enter very soon.

All of the works on Friday’s program were written within the last 30 years, and four out of the five pieces date from 1995 and after. Birthdates of the represented composers ranged from 1931 to 1974, and the range of musical styles was wide and impressive.

The concert opened with a piece by David Schober entitled Variations. The ensemble memorized the piece, freeing up their bodies to move expressively with the music. Impressions was the most impressive work on the program, using a variety of colors and sound-worlds to create a moving and profound statement.

Arturo Salinas’s Awiroma, the next work on the program, pulled the players away from their normal instruments, replacing them with percussion instruments. The piece is a “link to [the] vanished peoples” of northeastern Mexico who were wiped out by Western conquerors; the names of tribes are chanted over simple percussion, forming a haunting and powerful political statement.

Donald Martino’s Notturno, the work that led to Martino’s winning the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for Music, rounded out the first half. Notturno was easily the most famous piece on the program, and it certainly is an important musical document, introducing a variety of new sounds to the repertoire of composers everywhere through unusual combinations of timbres and extended techniques. While it was a fascinating experience to hear these sounds produced in a live concert, the work as a whole felt formless and ultimately unsatisfying.

The second half began with Carlos Sanchez-Guiterrez’s Luciernagas, the most extroverted piece on the program. Like Salinas’s work, Luciernagas carried with it an intense emotional weight, as it was also written in response to an episode of tremendous human suffering. Full of energy and passion, Sanchez-Guiterrez’s piece was one of the most successful in the program.

Rounding out the concert was eighth blackbird’s signature piece, Thirteen Ways, written for the ensemble by Thomas Albert, father of the group’s violinist, Matthew Albert. The work uses Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” as its basis, and is comprised of 13 short movements corresponding to each of Stevens’s poetic “ways.” The piece was sometimes charming, sometimes cheesy, but mostly enjoyable.

The best part about eighth blackbird – the passion and energy they brought to every piece on the program – cannot be described in words, but must be heard and felt in person. A group such as this is the closest that the concert world – the musical arena in which listening silently is privileged – comes to a “popular” ensemble. Publicity for the event did nothing to encourage new listenership, so there was no reason to expect any unfamiliar faces in Chapin Hall. Even so, I couldn’t help but be discouraged as I felt the emptiness of the hall around me, with red seats and dead air staring down a fantastic group of performers. I’m happy to say, however, that a lack of audience members was the only discouraging thing about the concert.

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