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Review: Eighth Blackbird

Adelaide Festival

Musica Viva should be proud of its role in bringing the Eighth Blackbird contemporary music ensemble to Adelaide. The group's eclectic program of work by five composers was engaging and often exhilarating.

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Eighth Blackbird take their name from Wallace Stevens’ famous poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird and its reference to “noble accents / And lucid, inescapable rhythms”. They have a mission to innovate and advocate new music by living composers.

The sextet comprises Nathalie Joachim (flutes), Adam Marks (piano, subbing for Lisa Kaplan while she is on maternity leave), Matthew Duvall (percussion, in many variations), Michael J Maccaferri (clarinets), Nicholas Photinos (cello) and Yvonne Lam (violin and viola).

The introductory “Doublespeak” by Nico Muhly began in a melodic, pastoral mood that was soon interrupted by dramatic percussion. A melancholy air, sweetened by a musical saw (Duvall), was brought to a dramatic conclusion. On that basis, it seemed that the audience might expect the unexpected and that was largely what lay in store.

Bryce Dressner’s “Murder Ballads”, four of them based on traditional works and three newly invented, ranged from jaunty danceables to violent clamouring, the latter presented with gruff combinations of wood blocks, cello, tinkering with the piano’s hammers, and so on. In other words, if it could be played in quite contrasting light and dark complexions, it was, and consummately.

Australian composer Holly Harrison based her quirky “Lobster Tales and Turtle Soup” on part of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and ended up with a lyrical mix of jazz and rock. Members of the ensemble got to intone a short passage from the book at intervals and the humour of the piece worked well.

So far, so good? It got better. Ted Hearne’s ekphrastic “By-By Huey” began with an insistent rhythm anchored by low register notes from a muted piano. It successfully conjured a feeling of menace and, as Yvonne Lam had mentioned, a sense of “mumbling” and “distortion” entirely suited to the subject of death and theme of loss.

Perhaps the best received (and most sophisticated?) piece lay at the end. Timo Andres’ “Checkered Shade”, described as “bittersweet”, was beautifully layered. It featured almost hypnotic pulsing; successive slow building with increased volume and eerie repetition that would then sink back into quiet moments. Finally, the louder, anguished tones mounted into a kind of rippling effect that subsided into a solemn and spare moment. The effect was chilling.

In all, the program comprised a welcome hearing of fresh music written by innovative composers for a group of brilliant, classically trained musicians. Both aspects deserved highlighting as they were this night.

Eighth Blackbird performed at the Adelaide Town Hall for one night only as part of the Adelaide Festival program.

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