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Ye Venerable Ancient Musicke Society

New York
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
01/31/2011 -  
Missy Mazzoli: Still Life with Avalanche
Pierre Boulez: Dérive 1; Philip Glass: Music in Similar Motion
Philippe Hurel: ……à mesure
Thomas Adès: Catch, Op. 4
Stephen Hartke: Meanwhile: Incidental Music to Imaginary Puppet Plays

eighth blackbird: Tim Munro (Flutes), Michael J. Maccaferri (Clarinets), Matt Albert (Violin and Viola), Nicholas Photinos (Cello), Lisa Kaplan (Piano), Matthew Duvall (Percussion)

eighth blackird (© eighth blackbird)

eighth blackbird gave a concert of ancient music last night. For 15 years, this extraordinary sextet has played music reaching over and beyond contemporary, cutting-edge pieces, and their wizardry on a diversity of instruments has made even the most recondite styles seem–if not always comprehensible on first listening–at least glistening with potential for more hearings.

Their concert last night, though, broke the rules. They performed one piece that was–wait for it–45 years old. And another one 40 years old. Oh, how the Mighty hath fallen.

Only jesting. The “antediluvian” pieces were by two icons, Pierre Boulez and Philip Glass, both of them relatively brief and poles opposite in feeling.

The Glass piece was one of his first experiments in what we now know as Minimalism. Like some Baroque music, he doesn’t specify instrumentation, so these six took up the cudgel. It begins with a single line (no harmony), then slowly the texture thickens, in a sort of fake fugue, and by the end of the 15 minutes, we have a tight firmly knit structure. All done with the simplest methods possible.

Boulez’s Dérive 1 was the opposite. Five minutes of massive, metallic thick sounds based on tiny variations of one or two notes, then going onto the others. Like a blackboard equation, this was dense, fascinating, and (I suppose) far more mathematical than one could tell at a first hearing.

By far, my favorite work–probably for the wrong reasons–was Philippe Hurel’s : ……à mesure, which was formal, tough, with marvelous colors. One section, though, was pure entertainment. At first, it resembled six water faucets dripping one drop at a time, one after the other, all with different sounds, M. Hurel now took these single sounds and made them more complex, variations on each sound…then back to the single taps dripping quickly with pitter-patters of clarinet, cello, xylophone etc etc.

Could I visualize Jackson Pollock dripping drops on his canvas, making them faster, thickening them, then, erasing and going back to the single drop? I did. Pourquoi pas? M. Hurel might have been amused.

Thomas Adès had the most purely amusing piece, written when he was a stripling of 19 years old. Called Catch, it was based on the game of Monkey (or Piggy) in the middle, trying to catch a ball. The ball was “thrown” by a quintet of instruments, playing at the highest or lowest registers–and clarinetist Michael J. Maccaferri wandering in and out of the quintet trying to play. Mr. Adès has written so many works since that time that this little bagatelle was a minor divertimento.

Not minor at all was one of the works written for eighth blackbird by the always estimable Stephen Hartke, this based on a buffet of Eastern and Middle Eastern music. Water puppets from Burma, giant puppets from Vietnam and Turkey were the inspirations. And the fact that he could merge these totally different styles (including the simulation of a Japanese story-teller and a classical Central Asian method of playing violin and cello) was intriguing by itself.

All the players perambulated in different sections, perhaps simulating the non-existent puppet-show of the title. Arnold Schoenberg once wrote Music for a Film, but admitted that no visual movie was in mind. Mr. Hartke was far more inventive in taking the world of Asian puppets and illuminating it with precise delicious colors.

I loved the opening Still Life with Avalanche, and again for the wrong reason. As an old blues harmonica player, any music which uses a harmonica (and I think it was a non-chromatic harmonica played by flutist Tim Munro) is good enough for me. But Missy Mazzoli, who wrote this for eight blackbirds, had more on her mind. Certain sections with a klezmer beat, others with a faintly Carib aura, and all of it imbued with a lovely unassuming undissonant feeling interrupted by some solemn notes. (She was working on this when she had heard that a relative had died.)

I dare not even speak about the performers. The ensemble eighth blackbirds has been extolled worldwide, and my simple words add nothing to their reputations. As for the music they played, I probably reacted erroneously, being amused, entertained and intrigued by scores over which the composers must have arduously labored. Apologies, please. It was still a brilliant evening.

Harry Rolnick



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