Review: Eighth Blackbird

March 7, Camp Concert Hall, University of Richmond

This season’s Tucker-Boatwright Festival at the University of Richmond might have been designed with Eighth Blackbird in mind. The festival’s theme is “Beyond Exoticism.” Its programs contrast traditional, often stereotyped representations of “other” – i.e., non-European – cultures with more recent “expression beyond difference” in art works that embrace “ethnic ambiguity and aesthetic complexity.”

Eighth Blackbird has been on this path for much of its 23-year history. The group’s programs often feature works adhering (more or less) to traditions of Western chamber music alongside pieces that draw both substance and form from vernacular cultures throughout the world.

In this program, the ensemble – violinist Yvonne Lam, cellist Nick Photinos, flutist Nathalie Joachim, clarinetist Michael Maccaferri, pianist Lisa Kaplan and percussionist Matthew Duvall – sampled music with Icelandic, Balkan, Afro-Caribbean and American popular stylistic influences.

The most compelling offerings, to my ears, were “Stay on It” by Julius Eastman, a gay African-American composer and pianist who struggled for recognition in his lifetime, died young in 1990, and only in the past few years has been appreciated for developing an art-music grown from popular roots; the premiere of “Four Rain-begging Songs,” British composer Alex Mills’ flute-and-clarinet duo loosely based on Balkan folk tunes; and “Madam Bellegarde” by Eighth Blackbird flutist Joachim, a wistfully melodic piece based on a song sung by her Haitian grandmother.

“Stay on It,” now regarded as one of Eastman’s classics, played here in a sextet transcription by pianist Kaplan, builds an insistently rhythmic riff, which might be described as Afro-Caribbean transplanted to urban American, into a fantasia that arcs toward violent intensity, then unexpectedly downshifts into almost baroque decorousness, then gives way to a gentle, almost resigned postscript. The ensemble made an urgent narrative of Eastman’s music, proving especially effective in bringing out its contrasts of mood and sound texture toward the end.

Joachim, playing flute and piccolo as well as vocalizing, and Maccaferri, playing B flat and bass clarinets, emphasized the novel tones and wind-playing techniques that give Mills’ song set its distinctive character. The ethnic roots of the first three songs are not easily detected; only in the dance-like finale does the piece clearly echo Balkan music.

Joachim’s affection is palpable in “Madam Bellegarde,” and the song on which the piece is based – first heard in a recording by her grandmother, later sung by Joachim – is a fertile source for a set of tuneful, playful variations for an ensemble of flute, clarinet, violin and cello.

Other works on this stylistically wide-ranging program:

– Angélica Negrón’s “Quimbombo,” an updated Caribbean festival, prismatically voiced for an ensemble of flute, violin, cello and percussion.

– Viet Cuong’s piano-flute-clarinet-percussion quartet “Electric Aroma,” which draws its title from a verse by Pablo Picasso – “an electric aroma a most disagreeable noise” – effectively rebutted in an attractively percolating fast tango.

– Jonathan Bailey Holland’s “The Clarity of Cold Air,” a winter tonescape with a few surprisingly warm episodes, inhaling and exhaling like a decidedly unfrozen organism.

– Fjóla Evans’ “Eroding,” a naturalistic evocation of an Icelandic glacier grinding a chasm in the land. The piece’s tonal character is a vivid acoustic echo of the mid-20th-century electronic sound-montage style known as musique concrète.

– Nina Shekhar’s “ice ’n’ SPICE,” music voicing the childhood memory of eating her father’s scorchingly spiced chicken masala with green chilies and easing the burn with ice cubes, in which the sextet veers between spare, open-textured strands of high-register tone and densely textured, frenetic passages.

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