For Intro to Music Criticism:
A colorful menagerie was on display last Friday in Warner Concert Hall: six birds chirped amidst toy pianos, train whistles, kazoos, the sounds of Paris, and electronic resonances. These forces were mustered for a concert by Oberlin Contemporary Ensemble (CME) with the Grammy-winning contemporary music sextet eighth blackbird, which formed at Oberlin.
In case eighth blackbird’s appearance wasn’t enough to make Friday an anticipated event, the concert also featured three world premieres, by Benjamin Broening, who is composer-in-residence at Oberlin, and by Tom Lopez and Peter Swendsen, professors of Technology in Music and Related Arts (TIMARA) at Oberlin.
The Lopez and Swendsen pieces, both written for eighth blackbird plus an identical sextet of CME musicians, framed the program. Swendsen’s work, Six Ways Through a Glass of Absinthe, was inspired by Picasso’s painting of the same name, and incorporated recordings from Paris, where Picasso lived at the time. The piece was exactly what one hopes a premiere will be: fresh, invigorating, and inspired. The almost minimalist repeating rhythms allowed the musicians to find an irresistible groove, while new instruments kept adding more parts, so that the piece had direction and didn’t stagnate. It brought to mind an intricate engine with pistons pumping independently while still part of the same machine.
Skipping Stones, Lopez’s piece, transformed a musical gesture into a stone skipped across water. A phrase passed through eighth blackbird, and then “bounced off” the CME quartet, who distorted it with instruments such as slide instruents and celeste until the music faded into electronics. A fascinating idea, the performance did indeed evoke wet stones sparkling in the sunlight like a crystal chandelier. The solos in the middle section were less interesting, but the texture was always novel.
eighth blackbird sat out the third premiere, Broening’s What the Light Was Like, for a CME sinfonietta. Consisting of five varied movements, the piece developed by accumulation, such as the descending tremolos spread through the strings in the second movement, with accents passing through the parts. The final movement conjured an atmosphere of doom, with an angry trumpet solo (played by Jacob Flaschen) calling through the smoke. Broening’s work was the most emotionally engaging of the night.
A fourth work on the program was composed in 2013: the four hands piano piece whirligig by Lisa Kaplan, eighth blackbird’s pianist. Kaplan played each movement of the fun piece with a different partner, good-humoredly trading forearm clusters at her old piano professor, Sanford Margolis, in the last section.
In the eighth blackbird-commissioned Tied Shifts (2004) by Derek Bermel, pulsing patterns transferred the audience to a Middle Eastern bazaar, where the musicians moved around stage, calling and jabbing at each other to point out unisons and duets.
Kaija Saariaho’s cello concerto Amers (1992) was the only work not from the 21st century. eighth blackbird’s cellist Nicholas Photinos floated lines peppered by extended techniques through oscillating storm clouds.
A nearly-full Warner Concert Hall testified to the draw of contemporary music, premieres, and such a devoted ensemble as eighth blackbird. Larger music organizations should take note: Oberlin and these birds are harbingers of the exciting future of music.