Eighth Blackbird serves up a varied menu of new music at Steppenwolf

Sat May 18, 2019 at 12:35 pm

By Michael Cameron

Eighth Blackbird performed Friday night at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre. Photo: Saverio Truglia

Enterprising contemporary music ensembles have increasingly turned to alternative performance spaces to reach audiences less inclined to visit a staid concert hall. Clubs, galleries, and museums have been favorite choices; theaters less so, perhaps because stages tend to be committed to a single production for extended performance periods.

Friday night’s appearance of Eighth Blackbird at the Steppenwolf’s intimate 1700 Theatre is their second in the venue. Ensemble Dal Niente, Spektral Quartet and Fifth House Ensemble have also been invited guests since the series began in 2016.

The intimate 1700 Theatre tends to present shows in short runs, often just a single evening, making it ideal for contemporary chamber music. The space is currently devoted to “LookOut,” a riotously varied, multi-genre array of events that have a natural appeal to a subset of Steppenwolf patrons. 

The 80 seat, cabaret-style arrangement is perfectly suited for the ensemble, even if the dryish acoustic is better suited to the spoken word than acoustic music. The quality of the music varied, but the performances were so polished and persuasive that the audience was enthusiastically engaged for the 90-minute duration.

Phillip Glass’ Music in Similar Motion from 1973 is a landmark early work that is uncompromising in its insistence on motoric rhythms, minimal pitch material, and total absence of dynamic variation. The scoring is unspecified, and since the number of motive utterances are left to the performers, the duration can range considerably.

Attributes of minimalism have seeped into so many composers’ works that it is easy to forget the impact of the original, bracing, deceptively simple concept. These works are notoriously difficult to pull off, requiring unflappable concentration and iron-clad rhythmic consistency. The septet pulled it off without a hitch in a bracing, 11-minute reading that expertly produced the intended hypnotic effect.

The ensemble’s flutist, Nathalie Joachim, does triple duty as a vocalist and composer, and her Madam Bellegard was a touching homage to her Haitian background. The recorded portion of the work includes her grandmother’s incantation of a simple tune (taken up by live by Joachim herself), an electronic pedal point, and the ensemble’s variations on the same tune.

Puerto Rican composer Angélica Negrón’s Quimbombó was a curious hybrid of highbrow academic atonalism with an occasional infusion of latin percussion (bongos, claves, etc.) and subtle syncopations. It was intermittently successful while bearing the hallmarks of a talented young artist still finding her compositional voice.

Alex Mill’s Four Rain-Begging Songs, written for Eighth Blackbird, feature the flute and clarinet in close, often imitative dialogue, which Joachim and clarinetist Michael J. Maccaferri played with tightly synchronized precision. The impression is less picturesque than the title suggests, but the young composer infuses his lines with engrossing melodic and textural interest.

Jesse Marino’s Rot Blau is a perfect work for the venue, described by the composer as “composed theater.”  A violin and piano duo uses, in the composer’s words, “synchronized and mirrored upper body movements to create small vignettes which depict the exercises of two androids.”

This description (and the use of wigs, props, mouthpieces, and micro-choreography) might strike some as gimmicky. But the precise, concentrated scrapes and taps on what can only be described as an amplified table were thoroughly original and engrossing. Pianist Lisa Kaplan and violinist Yvonne Lam stepped miles away from their comfort zones to deliver an astonishingly assured performance. 

The Blackbird Creative Lab is a California-based initiative designed to mentor budding performers and composers. It is an eminently praiseworthy endeavor, though one can’t expect works spawned at one of these residencies to be of consistently high quality. 

One such work, Molly Joyce’s Less is More is a duo for percussion and piano that pairs a minor mode tune with a pulsating keyboard ostinato. It made for a pleasant listen, but not enough to encourage further hearings. Kaplan and percussionist Matthew Duvall gave an authoritative reading.

Additionally, Gemma Peacocke’s Amygdala for cello and electronics was an only intermittently interesting sound study of sustained and varied timbres. Cellist Nick Photinos gave a sensitive and idiomatic after a false start with a recalcitrant laptop.

Dissolve, O My Heart for solo violin, by Chicago Symphony Orchestra composer-in-residence Missy Mazzoli, served as the highly compelling finale. Written for Jennifer Koh, with a request from the violinist to reference Bach’s famous Chaconne from his D minor Partita, the title is derived from an aria in Bach’s St. John Passion.

Bach’s famous opening chord of the Chaconne is heard, tentatively and muted, at the outset. Eventually an unmuted fantasy of sorts emerges, with a notable number of glissando connective gestures (an Asian reference?) and a few rhythmically propulsive passages (an homage to bluegrass?). 

The final passages are also muted, but this time with a heavy practice mute of the sort that violinists use when playing in hotel rooms, minimizing inconvenience with other patrons. Violinist Lam played these last measures with extreme delicacy, ending the concert not with a bang but a hushed and compelling whisper.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday. steppenwolf.org

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