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Despite the concurrent behemoth of Art Basel Miami Beach and its satellite fairs, new-music hipsters found their way to the New World Center Saturday night for eighth blackbird’s star turn with the New World Symphony. This Sounds of the Times program spotlighted the ensemble’s reputation as a premiere new music group and managed to pack the hall and its outdoor park for a Wallcast, even with Miami’s party-art scene in full swing just steps away.
With instrumentation drawn from Arnold Schoenberg’s iconic Pierrot lunaire, eighth blackbird’s original members from 1996 include clarinetist Michael J. Maccaferri, cellist Nicholas Photinos, pianist Lisa Kaplan, and percussionist Matthew Duvall. Flutist Tim Munro joined in 2006, and violinist Yvonne Lam in 2011. Taking advantage of New World Symphony’s wealth of performers, the program paired eighth blackbird with larger forces for Steve Reich’s 2009 Pulitzer-prize winning Double Sextet and Jennifer Higdon’s 2010 On a Wire.
In the Reich, eighth blackbird was teamed up with some of New World’s best musicians. Instead of pitting the ensembles in a duel, the two sextets mixed for a sonically tight effect. The topography of the Double Sextet’s fast outer sections is relentlessly dense: big, in-your-face, old-school minimalism, recalling Reich’s much earlier works. Pianists Kaplan and Aya Yamamoto and percussionists Duvall and Rajesh Prasad did yeoman work with driving, rhythmically tight syncopation. Winds and strings provided hard-edged volume with shimmering, strident chords.
For the slower central section, pianos and percussion took a backseat to antiphonal quartets of mixed winds and strings in imitative melodies. Perfectly blended string-dominated whispers became sharply wind-defined lines during the slowly swelling trajectory.
Visually, eighth blackbird had more groove in their step than the New World Fellows, although cellist Grace An’s rocking beats in the massive final section stole some of their guests’ thunder.
John Adams’ orchestral Guide to Strange Places from 2001 shared the same elements as the Reich but on a bolder, more sophisticated level. Its blocky, rhythmically syncopated patterns are delineated through high, medium and super-low registers. Adams wields his colors like hammers, especially with happily dueling bass drums.
Guest conductor Alan Pierson, best known as artistic director for new music ensemble Alarm Will Sound, led a bravura performance. The lanky, sharp-dressed Pierson is delightful to watch, with quirky, dancing gestures perfectly conveying the nontraditional demands of the music. Pierson’s nuanced balancing of the powerful, overlapping sections illuminated the work’s symphonic depth.
Eighth blackbird proved their mettle as soloists, ensemble, and leaders for grand orchestral tuttis in Jennifer Higdon’s On a Wire. Higdon’s music occupies a different aesthetic than Reich or Adams, more lush and lyrical, but no less energetic. Like a concerto grosso, the music ebbs and flows, constantly shifting between sextet, soloists, orchestra, and tutti passages for an ebullient effect.
The fascinating opening featured all six blackbird members “bowing” the piano by slowly flossing its strings. The unearthly harmonies returned often, both reprised by the blackbirds, and in the orchestra’s bowed vibes, muted horn, and non-vibrato strings.
On their respective instruments, eighth blackbird introduced simultaneous rapid scales in contrary motion. While recurring often in the full sextet, brilliantine solo passages for Maccaferri, Munro, Duvall, and Kaplan were also drawn from this idea. Traditionally romantic solos for Lam and Photinos were tenderly delivered for a compelling contrast.
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