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15.5.08

eighth blackbird: Waiting for This Moment to Arrive

eighth blackbird
eighth blackbird
The Fortas Chamber Music series brought eighth blackbird's newest program to the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Thursday night. The innovative modern music ensemble has been taking this concert of two new works, The Only Moving Thing, on the road since its premiere in Richmond this past March. The group won a 2008 Grammy Award for their fabulous album Strange Imaginary Animals, which it must be said, is a much more varied and interesting program than this relentless combination of classic minimalism and the Bang on a Can ethos. Not that there was not much to enjoy in this concert, presented with a winning combination of cheeky and earnest qualities, but by evening's end my nerves were worn thin.

The group commissioned Double Sextet from Steve Reich for their specific combination of instruments (piano, flute, clarinet, violin, cello, and vibraphone). A second set of parts for the same forces can be played live by different players or, as heard here, can be prerecorded by the same players for playback during performance. The more or less continuous background pulse, a feature of so many minimalist works since Terry Riley's In C, is provided by the piano and vibraphone, first on the recording and then intersected in similar patterns by the live performers.
Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Eighth Blackbird's 'Only Moving Thing': Gaining Altitude (Washington Post, May 15)

---, Intensely Innovative (Washington Post, March 28)

Kelly Jane Torrance, Blackbird remains new (Washington Times, May 9)

Allan Kozinn, A Night of Collaboration and Energetic Activity (New York Times, April 19)

Mark Swed, 'Blackbird,' by the numbers (Los Angeles Times, April 17)

Paul Bodine, Reich's pulsing pleasures sung by blackbird (Orange County Register, April 16)
The other four instruments mostly play homophonic chords that float above the pulse, bristling with dissonance. Only in the climactic ending did the pulse seem to take over the music, as the other instruments joined it and drove the work to its conclusion. By comparison to other Reich works, however, Double Sextet felt a little unvaried, working pretty much one large idea for each of the three sections, but in a disappointingly uniform way.

The second half was devoted to another work created for eighth blackbird, a suite of pieces by David Lang, Michael Gordon, and Julia Wolfe of Bang on a Can fame called Singing in the Dead of Night. Its five movements evoke scenes of darkness and night activity, and it suffered from the opposite affliction as the Reich. The piece overflowed with ideas, from its treble-dominated first movement, vaguely reminiscent of ragtime at points, to its conclusion fifty-five minutes later. The players, directed by Susan Marshall, moved about, switched instruments, and generally pushed the boundaries of concertizing. Although it is revolutionary, of course, the Bang on a Can thing runs the risk of becoming a sort of shtick -- dropping pans on an amplified pad, followed by the repeated spreading of pots of grain (replacing the sand used in earlier performances) on an amplified table. The playing was all excellent, but for all its appeal, Singing in the Dead of Night felt undisciplined, over-burgeoning with ideas, and it is hard not to think that it could benefit from significant cuts.

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