Tuesday, October 8, 2013


Oberlin Conservatory
October 5

Overflow crowds both onstage and in the audience.

Modern music is alive and well in Oberlin, where a packed Warner Hall audience heard some impressive performances on Friday night from the college’s Contemporary Music Ensemble and eighth blackbird, the Chicago-based sextet that includes five Oberlin alumni. With CME Director Timothy Weiss handling the conducting chores, the caliber of playing was strikingly good, far out of proportion to the young ages of the musicians.

Eighth blackbird is in a category of its own, combining the expertise of a dedicated contemporary music ensemble with the energy of a rock band and a flair for theatrics. The group formed the backbone of a 12-piece ensemble that played the opening work, Skipping Stones by Tom Lopez. Using the splashing sounds that a flat stone makes as it skips across the water as a departure point, the piece offers a series of delicate surface movements, then dives into deeper sounds that eventually include rattling and knocking. With Lopez adding electronics from the sound board, the group played the piece with surgical precision, sans conductor. It ran out of gas at the end, but otherwise made a light, witty opener.

Kaija Saariaho’s Amers was the only piece on the program from the international repertoire, a 1992 French-inspired spectral work played by a 14-piece ensemble fronted by ’96 grad Nicholas Photinos on cello. Weiss created a backdrop of vibrant colors and sparkling clarity for an energetic performance by Photinos, who took his instrument from frantic grumbling to ultra-fine extended single notes with finesse. Amers is interesting mostly as an example of its genre, but Weiss made it rich and evocative – no small accomplishment with a piece that is mostly floating textures – and Photinos added a frothy gusto.

Whirligig is a piano piece for four hands by eighth blackbird keyboard player Lisa Kaplan, who had great fun bringing out three different colleagues to join her in a round robin for the three movements. The mechanics are absurd, and deliberately so. Kaplan described the work in the program notes as “getting in each other’s business and relishing it,” with crossing hands the least complicated thing the players are required to do. The first movement ends with one player literally pushing the other off the piano bench. Whirligig got some laughs during the performance and a big hand afterward, offering an entertaining reminder that contemporary music need not all be serious and cerebral.

Derek Bermel’s fast-paced Tied Shifts gave eighth blackbird the stage to themselves and a chance to indulge in a bit of choreography, with the musicians moving around to play in different combinations. Stockhausen notwithstanding, such movements are typically more about style than substance. But eighth blackbird’s are done in service to the music, adding another dimension to the sound. With Bermel’s lightning rhythms driving both the music and the movement, it was a smart, spirited excursion.

One had to wonder if any of the 17 players onstage for Benjamin Broening’s What the Light Was Like were old enough to vote, much less play complicated contemporary music. Credit Weiss with a light touch and particularly fine hand with sonic effects, creating a carefully layered, often dramatic sound. The music was highly descriptive and if not one of Broening’s more memorable works, still a broad, richly colored canvas on which individual players were able to leave their marks.

The evening closed with Peter Swendsen’s Six Ways Through a Glass of Absinthe, which mixes a grab bag of influences (Picasso, Stravinsky, French pop) with recorded sounds (a café, a carousel) to create a mosaic that ranges from minimalism to street music. It never quite jelled, with the number of players onstage (12) finally seeming cumbersome. The piece calls for some sharp changes of timing and atmosphere, which a smaller group might have handled more nimbly. Or maybe it’s just impossible to maintain such a high caliber of playing with so many musicians across so many different styles.

Either way, there is no failing in being overly ambitious. And for the most part, this was not only a good concert but a reminder of the talent that Oberlin attracts and produces, with two of the composers and almost all of the players Oberlin students or graduates. And that enthusiastic fan base! Stockhausen should be so lucky.

For more on eighth blackbird: http://www.eighthblackbird.org/

For more on the Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble: http://www.oberlin.edu/nyc2013tour/artists/cme.html

Photo by Roger Mastroianni

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