Review: eighth blackbird and the New World Symphony

Written By ArtBurst Team
November 4, 2015 at 6:41 PM

The New World Symphony routinely hosts major musical guests, artists who serve both as concert soloists and as mentors to the young NWS Fellows. Still, there was something exhilarating about a previous Saturday night’s combination of eighth blackbird and the orchestra, conducted by Alan Pierson. Timed to coincide with Art Basel, this was music in the present tense, an all-American program of Steve Reich, John Adams, and Jennifer Higdon that more than once reminded the audience that we may well be living through a golden age of American music. In all its lower-case splendor, eighth blackbird has been in the forefront of music since its founding at the Oberlin Conservatory in 1996. Pierson, a commanding presence on the podium, is artistic director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic as well as of Alarm Will Sound, an ear-opening visionary ensemble you definitely should hear if you haven’t yet. Joining these forces with America’s Orchestral Academy at the New World Center in South Beach — with a free outdoors Wallcast yet — was a gift. The best came first, Reich’s 2008 Double Sextet, composed for eighth blackbird and given a miraculous reading by the group’s six musicians paired at the edge of the stage with six virtuosos from the symphony: Tim Munro and Emma Gerstein, flute; Michael J. Maccaferri and David Lemelin, clarinet; Yvonne Lam and Jennise Hwang, violin; Nicholas Photinos and Grace An, cello; Lisa Kaplan and Aya Yamamoto, piano; and Matthew Duval and Rajesh Prasad, percussion. The Double Sextet is a minimalist masterpiece, masterfully played. The frantic opening movement, with its disjunctive solo lines and tumult all around, is perhaps more difficult to read than earlier Reich scores. The music boasts a Hegelian dialectic where each musical idea seems to bring its own demise even as it is repeated again and again. That the result in performance was an improbable serenity amid all the madness is just one of Reich’s surprises. Just the musical process started becoming obvious, Reich subverted it by having the dozen musicians ease into a hallucinatory Andante that, for all its steady rhythms, broke the heart. The final movement, marked “fast” in the score, was a feast of breathless virtuosity. It deserves to be heard often. John Adams’ 2001 Guide to Strange Places followed. It was big, really big in a massive orchestral sense. Minimalism is the last thing this piece brings to mind, and in fact it is a reminder of Adams’ stubborn refusal to remain what he was when he created the miraculous Nixon in China nearly a generation ago. More than Reich and Glass, more than any other American composer, Adams is a mischievous post-romantic. His Guide to Strange Places at first came off here like a mash-up (think Stravinsky on mushrooms dreaming of Ravel). Then came several pages that might have come from Britten’s notebooks for Peter Grimes. The sweeping strings, utterly gorgeous and exquisitely controlled on this occasion, called for that old-fashioned critical judgement — beautiful music. The insistent horns sounded ready for Wagner. The ultraviolent timpani were shocking, as intended, ushering the finale amid gripping trombone and tuba cries. The New World Symphony rarely has sounded better. Jennifer Higdon’s 2010 On a Wire, her third piece composed for eighth blackbird, closed the program with frankly more visual than aural splendor. The spectacle on stage was rich. The members of eighth blackbird gathered again and again at a grand piano downstage and attacked its innards like hungry guests at a buffet. You’d think the ghosts of Cage and Cowell would be smiling up in music heaven, but the sounds these musicians made were, well, just kind of pretty. They treated the piano strings as they might those of a violin, running other strings across and around them and only then beginning to use the woodwork as percussion. The NWS musicians gamely played along, parting open their orchestral textures to let chamber moments happen. Higdon’s is a vast, harmless piece, conducted with affection and played within an inch of its life by musicians who meant every note they played. Photo by: Luke Ratray

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