with Atlantic Symphony June 3rd
eighth blackbird play like musicians possessed … They take wing, soaring on an upthrust of precision-tooled virtuosity.” — BBC Music
eighth blackbird spent the first weekend of May in New York City, presenting its “Meanwhile” program at the historic People’s Symphony Concert series and headlining a program of premieres at the innovative Look & Listen Festival; the New York Times’s Steve Smith commented: “Watching eighth blackbird in action … you envied a composer’s opportunity to challenge these versatile, expressive performers.” Latest in the long line of leading contemporary composers to do so is Pulitzer Prize-winning Jennifer Higdon, whose highly anticipated new Concerto for Sextet and Orchestra, On a Wire, was written expressly for the group. The new work forms the cornerstone of eighth blackbird’s summer schedule: after giving its world premiere and three subsequent performances at its debut with the Atlantic Symphony Orchestra (June 3-18), the sextet reprises Higdon’s concerto at California’s Cabrillo Festival (Aug 6). For its second appearance there, the group joins forces with the eminent and like-minded Kronos Quartet to present an evening of chamber music (Aug 8). Chamber music also takes center stage at Music10, Switzerland’s intensive new music festival, where eighth blackbird heads the faculty as ensemble-in-residence for the second year running (June 21 – July 2).
One of the most prolific and frequently performed American composers alive today, Jennifer Higdon (b. 1962) is having a momentous year; in February her Percussion Concerto was awarded the Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition, and two months later she won a Pulitzer Prize for her Violin Concerto. As the New York Times observed, “Higdon’s vivid, attractive works have made her a hot commodity.” On a Wire marks the composer’s second commission for eighth blackbird: Higdon wrote Zaka for the group in 2003. strange imaginary animals, the album that won the sextet two Grammy Awards (including the one for Best Chamber Music Performance), features the premiere recording of Zaka, which numerous critics singled out for praise. The Detroit Free Press pronounced the piece “a woosh of exuberant virtuosity” and Audiophile Audition deemed it “one of the stars on this CD.” Giving the disc full marks for performance and sound, BBC Music’s Paul Riley admired Zaka’s “high-octane larks” and remarked: “eighth blackbird play like musicians possessed; excited by the new, determined that their CD audiences will be too, they take wing, soaring on an upthrust of precision-tooled virtuosity.” As the Sacramento Bee concluded, “It’s sophisticated writing and playing of the first order.”
Now eighth blackbird takes on the work Higdon created especially for its own unique talents. The sextet gives the world premiere of On a Wire at its debut with the Atlanta Symphony – one of six orchestras that, with the Cabrillo Festival, combined to commission it – for three performances on June 3, 5, and 6 conducted by Music Director Robert Spano. Longtime champions of Higdon’s music, it was Spano and the Atlanta Symphony who premiered and recorded her most popular orchestral work, blue cathedral. The composer is one of the leading lights of the Atlanta School of Composers, which evolved from Spano’s commitment to nurture, commission, and record contemporary music with the orchestra, and on June 18 eighth blackbird reunites with Spano and the ASO to perform On a Wire at the Atlanta School of Composers Concert at the League of American Orchestras’ 65th national conference.
Later in the summer the sextet reprises Higdon’s new concerto in the “surf mecca of Santa Cruz,” where “the Cabrillo Festival has made the contemporary repertoire sound urgent, indispensable, and even sexy” (Financial Times). eighth blackbird will give On a Wire’s west coast premiere at the opening-night concert on August 6, supported by the resident Festival Orchestra under Music Director Marin Alsop, both recent recipients of the top national award of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers. It is also at Cabrillo that eighth blackbird will first share the stage with the revered Kronos Quartet – fellow Grammy Award-winning new music trailblazers – when the two come together to present “In the Blue Room” on August 8. At this special event to benefit the festival, the two ensembles will split the bill, each performing the innovative, adventurous repertoire for which it is famed.
If Cabrillo showcases eighth blackbird’s performing chops, the sextet’s other summer festival engagement – at Music10, in Switzerland – is set to harness its coaching expertise. A summer program of the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music, MusicX is held in Blonay, Switzerland at the prestigious Hindemith Foundation Music Center, from June 21 to July 2; flutist Tim Munro dubs it a “little musical utopia in Swiss paradise!” Returning to the intensive new music festival for its second consecutive year as ensemble-in-residence, eighth blackbird collaborates with principal composers Stephen Hartke, Martin Bresnick, and Joel Hoffman, pianist Lisa Moore, and a select group of young composers and instrumentalists. Each young composer, having been assigned a specific ensemble, will present a piece to be rehearsed, performed, and recorded at the festival. Each ensemble will feature one member of eighth blackbird alongside selected instrumentalists, and will, besides the new composition, prepare and perform music by the three principal composers. All the works will be performed in a series of concerts in and around Blonay – which is, as Munro marvels, “un-bloody-believably-spectacularly-idyllic”!