David Weininger, Globe Correspondent
The Boston Globe original link
A contemporary ensemble doesn’t follow the flock
Eighth blackbird wears its virtuosity lightly. Everything about this enterprising new-music ensemble bespeaks lightness and dynamism. In its 10 years, the Chicago-based sextet has won a reputation for playing demanding contemporary scores in a way that makes them both intense and inviting. That describes eighth blackbird’s stage presence, too: The musicians play largely from memory, which gives them the freedom to dance, wander, and tramp around the stage in choreography that matches the music’s contours.
Matt Albert (violin), Molly Barth (piano), Matthew Duvall (percussion), Lisa Kaplan (piano), Michael Maccaferri (clarinet), and Nicholas Photinos (cello) met at the Oberlin College Conservatory. They bring their 10th-anniversary program — titled ”lucid, inescapable rhythms,” with three Boston premieres — to Sanders Theatre on Sunday, marking their Celebrity Series debut.
Photinos and Albert recently spoke by phone from Photinos’s home in Chicago.
Q. Do you remember your first gig as eighth blackbird?
Albert: I remember a trip to Chicago, where we played for the Chicago Composers’ Consortium.
Photinos: I think that was our first paid gig.
Albert: Yeah, I think so. We went to the ATM afterwards and the guy took out, I don’t know, 90 dollars.
Photinos: And we slept on church pews.
Albert: I did sleep on a church pew that somebody had in their apartment. I don’t think there was even a mattress pad or anything.
Q. When did you know that the six of you had something that clicked?
Albert: We entered this competition, the Fischoff, in the spring of 1996. And because a couple of people were going on to grad school and doing different things, it was going to be the end of our short-lived career. And we got first prize in our division. And we just couldn’t believe it. We had breakfast at this truck stop, Mary’s, outside of Oberlin. I think Matthew [Duvall] had biscuits and gravy. I was like, ‘Wow, that is some white gravy right there.’ And we sat around and said, ‘Do you want to do this?’ And everyone said, ‘Yeah, let’s do this for a career.’
Q. As new-music groups go, you guys are pretty hot. What do you attribute that to?
Albert: It’s important that we connect with audiences. We talk to audiences from the stage, we try to be charming and have fun.
Photinos: We’ve always had fun doing this, and that’s why we want to do it. We’re not on a mission, like, ‘You should listen to new music because it’s good for you.’ It’s always been, ‘We really like this piece, check it out.’ And to share that enthusiasm and get the audience excited about it — that’s really at the core of what we do.
Q. What didn’t work, what did you struggle with early on as a group?
Albert: I think it’s hard for any group early on to get known — get the name out there and get gigs. And I think that when we started, touring with a percussionist was a ton of logistics that most of us had never considered. When I was practicing violin for my degree, I didn’t think I’d have to learn to put together a vibraphone as part of my job. But I learned pretty quickly.
Photinos: Early on we did a tour where we were on the road for eight weeks at a time. And we kind of learned that that’s a bad idea. We really try to limit that now.
Q. So how much time do you all spend with one another?
Photinos: I don’t know, as little as we can? (laughs) No, quite a lot. We’re on the road, I think, about a third of the year. But even when we’re in Chicago, a lot of the time we’re rehearsing, doing other stuff — meeting up for phone interviews, that sort of thing.
Albert: But technically we’re not in the same room now, so I don’t know if this counts.
Q. That’s better, I assume?
Photinos: Oh yeah, much better.
Q. Does it feel strange to make your living as a new-music group? Not just in terms of music careers, but in the larger world?
Albert: Yes, it does. You get this response a lot: ‘Oh, you can get paid to do that?’ (laughs)
Photinos: On any given day we might be required to saw wood or bark like a dog for a piece. And it’s great. And also pack up percussion and less savory things that we have to do. But all of that feels like it’s worth it. You also meet the best people along the way.
Q. You also have to meet journalists, which is kind of the downside.
Photinos: Yeah, that’s one of those less savory things.
Q. You took your name from Wallace Stevens’s ”Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” Why?
Albert: Well, first of all, I love the poem and suggested the name to the group. And I think we all like the idea of an ensemble being called something that did not immediately describe it as an ensemble.
Photinos: I feel like bands get great names.
Albert: Blink-182. Photinos: Yeah, Fall Out Boy, matchbox twenty. They have these fantastically creative and diverse names.
Q. Whereas in classical music you get the Stradivarius String Quartet or something.
Albert: Exactly. And why is that? Does having a name like that help them to be a better string quartet than if they were called Fall Out Boy? I don’t know. In what we do, it seemed like it was only going to help us stand out having a name like eighth blackbird.
Bank of America Celebrity Series presents eighth blackbird Sunday at Sanders Theatre. 617-496-2222, www.celebrityseries.org
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