Review: "eighth blackbird" at the Toby 

4 stars

Ensemble Music Series; IMA’s the Toby; March 26

Compared with their first appearance here on Nov. 28, 2007, eighth blackbird the second time around had to be considered rather conservative: no highly unorthodox instruments, such as tables with sound enhancing canisters above them on which they rhythmically pounded with their hands and fingers.

Nor visual effects, such as a video montage, no clarinet scraping the floor — no chanting or singing of any stripe. No, our six very versatile performers not only stuck with just playing their preferred instruments but remained affixed in position in four of their five selections, with scores in front of them.

The one exception to that was Meanwhile (2007) by Stephen Hartke (b. 1952), which eighth blackbird commissioned. Cast in six parts, it depicts incidental music to imaginary puppet plays. Here the players moved about the stage, rather like slow-motion puppets, with pianist Lisa Kaplan attacking a small mallet instrument whose pitch she could change after striking the key, making a bit of a twang and moving us every which way.

Kaplan then returned to her piano, while violinist/violist Matt Albert, cellist Nicholas Photinos, flutist Tim Munro and clarinetist Michael J. Maccaferri did their respective things while changing instruments and keeping the rhythm.

Of most interest to me was Kaplan doing a piano section where all its string dampers remained on their strings, giving the instrument a quick plucking sound. Was that action enabled by a special pedal incorporated onto this “special” piano?

Still Life with Avalanche (2008) by 30-year-old Missy Mazzoli began the program, and built to a sparkling study in timbres, including harmonicas — and rhythmic drive. While the programmatic allusion in its title suggests an abrupt change in mood, I failed to hear it, but nonetheless found the piece imaginative and colorful.

Not quite so with the ensuing Philip Glass work, Music in Similar Motion (1969), an early example of this master of minimalism. Here his mastery is questionable, starting with an incessantly repeating melodic figuration which continues unabated and enhanced only by the gradual addition of harmony.

For those heavy into minimalism, this music may have been hypnotic; for me it was a crashing bore. Still, credit must be given to our players for their mastery in holding the beat, that is till the music abruptly stops — the only feature this style has in common with the 12-tone music which started a bit earlier in the century.

Following the break came Marc Mellits’ (b. 1966) Spam (1995), this time with percussionist Matthew Duvall absent, giving us a motor-like — think “choo-choo train” — rhythm with every motive repeated, the “machine” running through one melodic thread after another, the five players all contributing their own pitches to a generally agreeable combo. And no, the piece doesn’t seem to refer to email “spam” as I at first thought; but then it was 1995.

Philip Glass’s great minimalist colleague, Steve Reich (b. 1936) provided the program’s last, and best-by-far offering, Double Sextet (2007). This of course means that Reich was 71 when he wrote it and possibly indicates a late-blooming musical mastery. We heard 12 performers, the six eighth blackbird people in front of us and the same group recorded, playing different-but-well-blending material at the same time.

Kaplan’s piano recording started the “process” with Lisa herself then chiming in, both with rapid, ever shifting chords. They continued while the other instrumental recorded and live combos chimed in. The piece had something compelling melodically, harmonically, rhythmically and colorwise to say. That is all you can ask of any great music.

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Tom Aldridge

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