The nagging, persistent, unavoidable distinction between "classical"
and "contemporary" (in nature, not chronology) disappears at "eighth
blackbird" concerts. Six young, superbly talented musicians select the
best of "new" (or newish) music and perform these works with sincerity,
commitment, and excellence. Those who may be uncomfortable at the
beginning of the concert, looking at a program of unfamiliar (or scary)
names, stand at the end, applauding madly. It's sheer magic: along with
the Kronos Quartet, Blackbird is the most convincing and effective
advocate for new music.
And so it was tonight, at a San Francisco Performances concert in the
JCC's Kanbar Hall. Communicating directly with the audience, warm,
friendly but utterly professional, Kronos-like in unstuffy, casually
fashionable appearance, the Blackbirders are a winning bunch. You may
raise an aged eyebrow at the pianist's bare midriff and boots, but in a
couple of minutes, you'll recognize that Lisa Kaplan is one of the finest
musicians around, rock-solid even in the most demanding scores, equally
steady over the keyboard and inside the piano (where she spent a great
deal of time). Violinist Matt Albert may be sporting an aloha shirt,
but my! how well he plays, how he holds the group together.
Casual and unremarkable in dress, the other musicians are all of sterling
quality: Molly Alicia Barth, flutes; Michael Maccaferri, clarinets; and
Matthew Duvall, percussion. Shockingly, cellist Nicholas Photinos wears
all black - is he trying to pass for a "classical musician"?
Highlights of the evening's rich program, including an important US
premiere (Derek Bermel's Tied Shifts"), were George Perle's 2001 "Critical
Moments," a charming, elegant, imaginative series of nine short movement,
and George Crumb's breathtakingly beautiful 1971 "Vox Balaenae" ("Voice
of the Whale"). The composer's requirement for the trio performing "Vox"
to wear black masks is not explained away by the explanation of "effacing
the sense of human projection," but that did not matter against the
powerful, virtuoso performances. Barth both made her flute sing and
sang (and hummed) into it; Photinos's cello and Kaplan's piano embraced
and lifted the lead flute. At the conclusion of the work, there was one
of those rare extended moments of silence that shout "bravi!" louder
than any voice can.
Jennifer Higdon's 2003 "Zaka," Frederic Rzewski's 1969 "Les Moutons des
Panurge" (with 65 sheep each represented by a note, played not in a herd,
but in 1-2, 1-2-3, etc. combinations, a bit "too clever," but fun), and
Kaija Saariaho's 1998 "Cendres" were all excellently performed, very
The Bermel premiere showed a young composer at a phase well beyond mere
promise. Inspired by a Bulgarian folk clarinetist, the piece features
compound meters, and - according to Bermel - "tying melodic notes over
a barline, resulting in the obscuring of the meter." My attention was
not on that or what is advertised as its "octatonic harmonic language"
(isn't that just a "diminished" scale, implying poly-tonality?), but
rather on a simple, impressive structure.
Both of the work's movements open with a violin-cello duo, in rolling
ostinato patterns (the first movement fugue-like, the second more lyrical
and prayerful), the other instruments joining smoothly, logically. The
second movement veers into "pleasant dissonance," which then develops
into a series of adventurous variations, a solemn sound returning at the
end. It is a important work, both accessible and demanding of repeated
The audience in Kanbar Hall was surprisingly small for a city often in
the vanguard of contemporary music. It's a pity, and a loss for those
who didn't attend. Catch up with eighth blackbird on NPR and several
CDs - and next time they are in town, run, do not walk. (The name is
from the eighth stanza of the Wallace Stevens poem, "Thirteen Ways of
Looking at a Blackbird" - "I know noble accents / And lucid, inescapable
rhythms..." See http://eighthblackbird.com/.)
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