Lucid, Inescapable, Glistening!
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
Steve Reich: Double Sextet (New York Premiere)
David Lang/Michael Gordon/Julia Wolf, with Stage Direction by Susan Marshall: Singing in the Dead of Night (New York Premiere)
“eighth blackbird”: Tim Munro (Flutes), Michael J. Maccaferri (Clarinets), Matt Albert (Violin and Viola), Nicholas Photinos (Cello), Matthew Duvall (Percussion), Lisa Kaplan (Piano)
“eighth blackbird” is an unlikely combination of instruments. But the five men and one woman who play these instruments are so brilliant, controlled and technically so faultless that composers are falling over themselves writing for them. Although the group, founded at Oberlin Conservatory, resides at both the University of Virginia and Chicago University (a combination as implausible as their own mélange!), they tripped up to New York to play premieres of two works that only “eighth blackbird” could play—or move. That last verb will be explained later.
Steve Reich wrote his Double Sextet for the group, and it has the same feeling as Triple Quartet written for strings only. But to be honest, it has the same feeling as all of Steve Reich. Granted, nobody wants to be called a Minimalist these days, but with Reich and Glass, there are no surprises left. Philip Glass is a man of the theatre, so while his music has a sameness to it, that sameness works with the right production behind it, as in his films and the Metropolitan Opera production.
Reich’s music is more urgent, chugging along painlessly, ceaselessly, carefully. We know that he changes chords suddenly, meaning a whole new section. We know the sextet here was playing music along with themselves on a recording. Thus, the “double” of the sextet. It was played with verve, precision and the usual velocity. One was listening to a series of endless perfectly spun equations, and bless him for doing it one more time.
But now let us get to the “moving” music. Three composers from “Bang On A Can” together wrote Singing In The Dead of Night for “eighth blackboard”. Realizing the group was ready for anything new, they brought in choreographer Susan Marshall to “move” them. Yes, she was restrained by the instruments (it is difficult to violently move a cello!), but the movements were delightful—though nothing compared to the music.
In the five continuous sections, the players backed around the stage, they used accordions and dropped tin cans, they played endless with endless containers of leaves (mainly sleeping on a table with leaves, brushing them around the table and throwing them on the floor. They not only played but played with an accordion, with several different clarinets, flutes and some basic percussion—vibraphone and some kind of pounding drum.
It was all amusing. But the music was so stunning that one didn’t need that movement to make it go. The work started with a quasi theme. The incredible pianist Lisa Kaplan played this with heavy chords, while flute, clarinet, vibraphone and cello played soprano rings around the theme. Thus began almost an hour of gorgeous sounds, sometimes variations, sometimes departing far away. Mainly they were in the high treble range: dazzling ornaments around the music, cadenzas for one, two or three of the instruments. An accordion was picked up by Kaplan, first playing one chord, then, played by percussionist Matthew Duvall, a sound of all the keys together. A “night scene” of piccolo and clarinet playing a single note was so haunting that even when some cans were banged (a tribute to “Bang On A Can”), the sounds only complemented the eerie solos.
At times, one likes to question, “What would Mozart have thought of this?”, and no realistic answer comes to mind. I think that Mozart, with his love of the absurd, with his love of new sounds, with rhythms and puzzles, would have loved all 50 minutes of the music. No greater compliment could ever be offered this so memorable concert.
CODA: And what is the genesis of the name “eighth blackbird”? Since I had once prefaced a book on feng shui with a poem by Wallace Stephens, it had to be the same poet who wrote “Thirteen Ways Of Looking At A Blackbird”. And yes, they rightly named themselves after the verse: I know noble accents/And lucid, inescapable rhythms; /But I know, too,/That the blackbird is involved/In what I know.