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thirteen ways
Joan Tower: Petroushskates (arr. Otte)
George Perle: Critical Moments 2
David Shober: Variations
Thomas Albert: Thirteen Ways 

eighth blackbird (Molly Alicia Barth, flutes; Michael J. Maccaferri, clarinets; Matt Albert, violin & viola; Nicholas Photinos, cello; Matthew Duvall, percussion; Lisa Kaplan, piano)

Review by Joe Milicia
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thirteen ways Blackbird

CD Number: Cedille CDR 90000 067


  Eighth blackbird (they don't use caps) is a sextet in residence at the University of Chicago, having formed in 1996 at the Oberlin Conservatory, where all the players had been students. The make-up of the group is nearly the same as the forces required for Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire: violin/viola, flute, clarinet, cello and piano, with a percussionist in place of the vocalist. This is their first commercial CD (an earlier one can be purchased from their website), and all but the Joan Tower piece are world premiere recordings, commissioned by eighth blackbird.

Actually, the Tower piece too is a premiere in its present arrangement. (As far as I can tell from the notes, the only difference from the original is the addition of percussion.) The awkwardly titled Petroushkates is an homage to both Petrushka and the beauty and grace of figure skaters. It's the shortest and also slightest piece on the program, pleasant enough in its evocation of the swirl of the fair scene in Stravinsky's ballet. The three other works are all remarkable in their own ways: their quality combined with eighth blackbird's splendid execution makes this disc a must-hear for enthusiasts of contemporary chamber music.

George Perle's Critical Moments 2, a suite of nine pieces lasting only a bit over 11 minutes total, seems to come out of the world of Webern's miniatures, though with more rhythmic regularity and motivic repetition in each short piece. The ensemble plays with superb subtlety, delicacy and incisiveness, bringing to life pieces that cannot be characterized in terms of mood. They are not "capricious," "tranquil," "anxiety-laden" (for example), but the equivalent of some kinds of abstract painting: a joy to behold without the need of any sort of label. (Indeed, the pieces are identified as "dotted eighth note = 120" and so forth.)

Perle (born 1915) is the dean of the composers on the program, while David Schober (born 1974) is the youngest -- once an Oberlin roommate to Matt Albert, the violinist of the group. The composer's notes for Variations indicate the influence of Schoenberg, Messiaen and Knussen, but suffice it to say that the piece runs through a kaleidoscope of moods in its 9 minutes, with the challenge, well met by the ensemble, of passing a held note or rhythmic pattern seamlessly from one player or subgroup to the next. It's a "bigger" piece than the Perle in that emotional intensity is often called for and some sections have the ensemble in full throttle.

Matt Albert is also connected to the last composer on the program: his father Thomas. If potential buyers have been suspecting that the group's name comes from Wallace Stevens' gnomic suite of poems "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," this piece (along with the program notes) leaves us with no doubt. (Stevens' eighth section, by the way, reads, "I know noble accents/And lucid, inescapable rhythms;/But I know, too/That the blackbird is involved/In what I know.") The performance features a reading aloud (alternating among the players) of each haiku-like section before the playing of the musical piece. This strikes me as a mistake on a couple of counts. First, the pieces are haunting on the page but difficult to read aloud without the speaker sounding amateurish or arch. Second, since Albert directly evokes a mood or other parallel for each section -- a "Leaden, bleak" portrayal of the "snowy mountains" of the first poem, a rhythmic pattern of threes for the second ("I was of three minds..."), a swirling pattern for "the blackbird whirled in the autumn winds," and so forth -- the music sometimes seems a bit obvious after one hears the reading. Better (at least, so I think at the moment) to let the listeners make the connections for themselves; the text is included in the booklet. That said, I must add that the richly varied movements are a great pleasure to hear: playful or brooding, quiet or rhapsodic, all perfectly written for the ensemble at hand. According to the composer's notes, there are numerical games being played in the various movements, but perhaps more interesting is the fact that Lennon/McCartney's "Blackbird" is alluded to in four of the movements, most noticeably (and appropriately, granted the ensemble's moniker) in the eighth, which uses the rhythmic pattern of the song's first line.

Cedille gives these excellent players superb sound for their surely definitive performances, plus a typically full booklet with details on the composers, the works, and the ensemble.




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