Nathalie Joachim, the flutist force of nature in Eighth Blackbird, conveyed to the audience in the first opening dialogue that the final performance of the ensemble’s 21st season would be a greatest hits of their last several years. May 12th marked the first time that Civic Music Association presented Eighth Blackbird in their Des Moines home-base of Sheslow Auditorium on the campus of Drake University. As Joachim suggested, the program was a robust mixture of works from their Filament, Olagón: a Cantata in Doublespeak, Hand Eye recordings as well as more hand-picked works for this performance.
What is most striking about Eighth Blackbird, in addition to their adventurous musical spirits, is a finely honed sense of the repertoire which displays their skills, musicianship, and creative vision to its utmost. They are an ensemble unafraid of aggressiveness or athleticism in their playing. Composer Ned McGowan’s The Garden of Iniquitous Creatures (2016) gave ample opportunity for the true measure of ferocity these musicians exhibit as a piece inspired by Swedish metal band Meshuggah should. McGowan mixed that vigor and strength in coordinated piano and percussion motives as well as expressive, even scratch tone, bowings in the strings. Part of that vitality came not just through force but also precision. Clarinetist Michael Maccaferri and Joachim, on piccolo, demonstrated gorgeously synched articulations in the McGowan. The ensemble opened the concert with two movements of Bryce Dessner’s Murder Ballades (2013.) The first part, “Omie Wise—Young Emily,” similarly initiated that driving and potent energy under Lisa Kaplan‘s able fingers in the piano line. Percussionist Matthew Duvall further drove the point home, teaming up with Kaplan’s “unhinged” piano figures, in Ted Hearne’s By-By Huey (2015.) Hearne’s work also interestingly exploited resonance and its absence throughout the ensemble from a freely vibrating sound to stopped pizzicato and a muted triangle sound, for example.
The reason it is so important to bring up Eighth Blackbird’s athleticism and fierceness is because they use it to elegantly highlight the opposite in their playing. When they juxtaposed with tenderness it was more highly noticeable to new and veteran listeners alike. When Yvonne Lam seemingly stopped time, first on viola in Dan Trueman’s “Marbhan’s Shadow” from Suite from Olagón: A Cantata in Doublespeak (2017), and later in the violin writing of Timo Andres’ Checkered Shade (2015) it was a palpable shift in texture. Cellist Nicholas Photinos and Joachim teamed up in Robert Honstein’s “Pulse” from Conduit (2015) in a gossamer-like duet against a backdrop of asynchronous repeating figures. Finally, it was a pleasure to hear David Lang’s “wed” from memory pieces (1992) in a new arrangement for both Kaplan and Duvall. Having heard Kaplan play this piece solo a number of times since 2012, it was fascinating to hear the percussion bring out different aspects of the shifting between consonance and dissonance.
Overall, it is extremely gratifying to hear an ensemble that has continued to change and evolve over 21 seasons. The fact that they know their repertoire and musicality strengths so well encourages them to new musical adventures rather than less. An antidote to the ubiquitous pick-up ensembles that proliferate in the new music community, Eighth Blackbird demonstrates the inspiring programming, audience building, commissioning, mentoring, and more that can happen with longevity.