Sextet x 2: eighth blackbird, Curtis group play together

Posted: February 26, 2010

The contemporary music group eighth blackbird would seem a bit young to be holding a residency at the Curtis Institute of Music. Didn't this sextet form the day before yesterday?

Try 1996. Such longevity is significant for any sextet with unconventional instrumentation (strings, winds, percussion, and keyboard), but all the more so for its modern-music affiliations. An important milestone, no doubt, is what ended Wednesday's joint concert with the Curtis 20/21 ensemble: Steve Reich's Double Sextet, which won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize and was commissioned by eighth blackbird.

Typically, the group performs the piece with a prerecorded tape of itself (it's a double sextet after all), a procedure that's not new to Reich. On Wednesday, the tape was replaced by the Curtis 20/21 ensemble, allowing subtle performance flexibility and giving an added presence of hearing all 12 instruments in the cozy environs of Field Concert Hall. Besides taking you deep inside the music, the experience was hugely exciting.

Though Pulitzer Prizes don't always go to a composer's best work, the Double Sextet is one of Reich's, along with Music for 18 Musicians and City Life, which are also among the finest pieces of our time. Reich's social conscience - evident in The Desert Music, The Cave, and Three Tales - stays in the background here in a work marked by the composer's typically giddy rhythms. But more than earlier Reich, it tips from exaltation to menace on a dime.

Much of Double Sextet's eerie string writing was heard in his Different Trains; here that effect is more emphatic and, rather than being peripheral commentary, carries a great deal of musical information in what may be his most lyrical nonvocal piece. Though an unbroken span of music, the piece is a series of discrete episodes welded together with strong modular construction. You knew you were hearing the finale because Reich stopped exploring the expressive possibilities of his thematic/rhythmic material and more simply set about intensifying what he had, reminding you of his stated credo: Music should induce ecstasy. Both the piece and the performing musicians succeeded on that front - to say the least.

The rest of the program was full of minor works by major composers, including an atmospheric multi-marimba piece by Toru Takemitsu titled Rain Tree (as usual with this composer, it was a third too long) and George Perle's Critical Moments 2, consisting of nine marvelously witty micro-movements (you might call it stand-up haiku), which was too short.

Philadelphia's Jennifer Higdon was on hand to introduce her Zango Bandango, specifically written as an encore piece and full of bait-and-switch humor: When you think it's going to end, the piece goes further. Then when it seems to have a ways to go, it ends.

The most original work on the program, though, was Stephen Hartke's Meanwhile. Since it's ostensibly theater music - subtitled "Incidental Music to Imaginary Puppet Plays" - there's less responsibility to write a unified piece. So the composer seems to have rampaged through his own imagination, full of dazzling percussion and a concluding flute solo that eloquently conveys genteel outrage.

Though the Curtis musicians were a bit tentative during the Perle piece, performances were well in hand technically - no small thing in a modern-music program. As for eighth blackbird, its central strength lies beyond the notes, in the ability to project the most enigmatic musical gesture with a sense that plenty of meaning is there if you just look for it. Some musicians believe their job is to answer questions posed by the music; eighth blackbird encourages the listener to do that.

Contact music critic David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com.

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