Flying South for the Winter 

Eighth blackbird lands in Richmond.

The group — consisting of Molly Alicia Barth, flute; Matt Albert, violin and viola; Matthew Duvall, percussion; Michael J. Maccaferri, clarinets; Nicholas Photinos, cello; and Lisa Kaplan, piano — typically memorizes about half its music. So members are free to move about the stage and often interact with each other, sometimes passing the melody, literally, from one player to the next.

But the way the players interact is just the beginning of what makes this group unique. It's also the genre of music. "Typically, we don't play many pieces written before 1960, and the bulk of it was written after 1996," says flutist Molly Barth. Toward the beginning of the group's career, many venues asked the players to add a Beethoven quartet or other traditional pieces to their contemporary programming. Eighth blackbird refused. "We lost a few gigs because of that," Barth says. "But we created a meaning for ourselves and a niche few classical groups have."

The Richmond program will feature the world premiere of a new work by Renee Favand, titled "Here Comes the Moon," with modern music specialist and award-winning soprano Lucy Shelton, accompanied by eighth blackbird's Matthew Duvall on marimba. Shelton also joins the group in the second half with a new presentation of Arnold Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire," featuring live puppetry by Blair Thomas. The program will in addition feature a new work by composer Derek Bermel.

Replacing the Shanghai Quartet as ensemble in residence at UR, the musicians involve themselves in as much of the curriculum as they can. From teaching a music class on the history of "Pierrot Lunaire" to coaching chamber ensembles and orchestra sectionals, eighth blackbird hopes to influence students to explore contemporary music.

Composers are certainly taking notice. Huge stacks of music submitted by student composers, faculty members and others are in eighth blackbird's possession just waiting for the chance to be discovered. While almost all will be heard, only a very small percentage will be chosen to be performed. "Unlike the Kronos Quartet, which also performs contemporary music, we don't learn sixteen to twenty new pieces a year," Barth says. "We typically pick a few and learn them well and perform them often." For new composers, who usually just have their piece premier once and are lucky to ever have it played again, eighth blackbird offers a huge opportunity for exposure.

Besides the chance for a new composer's music to be heard, there is the thrill of collaborating with eighth blackbird. The group usually meets with a composer a month or two before the performance to get background on the piece. Once they've learned it, they'll play it for the composer, often giving suggestions, and vice versa.

One of the ensemble's favorite composers is Frederic Rzewski. The music of their entire third disc, "fred" — set to be released this spring — is devoted to him. It will include two of his process pieces from the 1970s as well as the world premiere recording of "Pocket Symphony," which was written for the ensemble in 2000.

The group derives its name from the eighth stanza of the Wallace Stevens poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," which violinist Matt Albert read in an English class while attending Oberlin. The eighth stanza reads:

I know noble accents

And lucid, inescapable rhythms;

But I know, too,

That the blackbird is involved

In what I know.

Next year marks the 10th anniversary for eighth blackbird, and the group plans to perform some of its favorite pieces from years past in addition to commissioning three pieces that mentors to the group have recommended. Future performances will take them to New York, Chicago and Amsterdam, among other cities. But we hope that wherever the future takes them, they'll always fly back to Richmond.S

Eighth blackbird performs at the Modlin Center for the Arts Feb. 23 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $5-$28. Call 289-8980.


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