We ended our whirlwind tour with almost a week in Cincinnati participating in the Music Now/National Homecoming festival. We played five performances of a repertory concert with the ballet, and a concert at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center with Will Oldham and Bryce Dessner as our guests. 

We were treated to some beautiful spring weather, which I took advantage of to explore Over-the-Rhine. Besides the many many hip places to eat and drink, there are numerous boutiques, both for men and women, and I somehow found my wallet a lot lighter after a few days of walking around (Continuum, The Most Beautiful Thing in the World Is, and MiCA 12/V, I’m talking to you). 

The National Homecoming venue was at Smale Park, on the banks of the Ohio River right under the Roebling Bridge. We played indoors at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center a short walk away, so I didn’t get to experience any of the awesome acts gracing that stage except for the sound checks that echoed in the morning air on my way to rehearsal. Our ballet performance were at the Aronoff Center, in the heart of downtown, and the tech rehearsals and performances kept us either coming or going from there most of the day.

It took some adjusting to fit ourselves into the pit. We ended up with Matthew set up on the wrong side of the ensemble, but with audio monitors and a TV monitor for us it all worked out okay. It’s not unusual for us to play the same program five times in a row, but it is unusual for us to play it in the same place five times in a row. The pit became a sort of de facto office for that week – it was luxurious to leave our stuff set up and just come for the performance without building in setup time or dragging instruments around. The one frustrating part – and this was also the case for me when I played opera and ballet at the Kennedy Center – was that we were never really able to see the dancing. Even with the monitor, you can’t really look unless you’re not playing, which we were pretty much all of the time. Luckily there’s some archival footage we can dig into later.

The audience apparently really loved the program. Every night people stopped us as we walked back to the hotel and commented on how much they loved the music and the choreography. One of the donors who was responsible for supporting the program, Mark Schlachter, even created two sculptures inspired by Eighth Blackbird (see picture above). He gifted the smaller one to us, so we’re anxiously awaiting its arrival in the mail. 

All in all, it was a pretty great way to end our four-city tour, and the season in general. We returned home to 70-degree weather in Chicago and blooms on the trees. It’s been quite a journey this season, from Milan to Budapest to Cincinnati, and it certainly feels like we’ve packed a lot into a short time. We head to Des Moines this weekend to perform at Drake University for our official last concert of the season, then we have our benefit bash, and then it’s preparation for the second Blackbird Creative Lab, which promises to be just as exciting (if not more!) as the inaugural one.

 

As I write this in the Denver Airport, I’m looking out at the gray, snowy landscape. The weather took a turn for the worse today, but when we arrived it was gorgeous and the Rockies were in full view. Michael and Nathalie took a super early flight in the hopes of gaining a few more hours to acclimate to the altitude, but ended up getting so delayed we almost arrived at the same time. The altitude is no joke to us sea-levelers, and the second day felt worse than the first.

We only had time to check in and freshen up before heading  to the Clyfford Still Museum for a special double header performance for the patrons of the Friends of Chamber Music Denver. I hadn’t heard of Clyfford Still before we organized this performance, but he was a contemporary of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, and arguably just as well known back in the 50’s before he decided he wanted out of the commercial art world and stopped exhibiting his work publicly. After his death, he stipulated that his works be shown as a whole body of work, isolated from the work of other artists, which is how he believed all artists should show their work.

The museum building is mostly concrete, but somehow manages to feel warm and organic, much like Still’s work. We played a program of Lang, Feldman, Cage and Honstein to complement the works and highlight the style of the period as well as his contemporaries in the music world. Patrons were free to wander about while we played or sit and listen – we situated ourselves in different galleries for the duos and solos, and came together in the main one for the sextet works. In case people were talking or wandering elsewhere at the time, we played through the program twice.

After that, we were treated a hot pot dinner. I was a little skeptical, having only ever had hot pot at my relatives’ houses and never at a restaurant. Pot jokes aside, if you haven’t had Chinese hot pot, go to The Bronze Empire and give it a try. It’s best enjoyed with a crowd, as it’s somewhat communal in nature, and the food is unbelievably fresh and flavorful. If you’re squeamish about sharing, don’t worry – everyone gets their own personal pot of simmering broth, so it can accommodate all palates and even vegetarians.

The next day was performance day. We gave a talk to the music students at the University of Denver in the afternoon, and then gave our last Hand Eye performance of the season. I’m pretty sure the audience liked it, but you never know whether people stand up immediately because they really liked it or because they can’t wait to get home. I’m guessing it’s probably 50/50.

This morning we visited the Denver School of the Arts, an arts magnet for grades 6-12. We played a little bit to introduce ourselves and then heard three chamber groups perform. I was certainly not expecting to hear Beatles, but we were treated to a pretty great string arrangement of Eleanor Rigby. These kids were so talented and easily at the level of some universities we’ve encountered. I’m always buoyed by hearing young people perform at such a high level, and so happy that there’s a public school that nurtures them.

It’s been a few days since we left California, but I’m still dreaming about the sun. Since my whole family is in the Bay Area, I was able to sneak off the day we arrived and have a nice visit with them before heading up to Sonoma State University, where we did three seminars and a masterclass with business, leadership, and music students as well as a performance of Hand Eye. A tip for those unfamiliar with the toll system: you can pay online for both past and future tolls (we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge), but you only have 40 hours after you cross to pay. And don’t try to be cute by borrowing someone’s Fastrak – it’s linked to the owner’s license plate and they will catch you.

The Green Music Center is a thing of beauty. Modeled on Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall, it’s an embarrassment of blond beauty; almost everything is constructed of European steamed beech wood, and the back wall opens up to reveal lawn seating in the summer. The surroundings are lush and green everywhere you look, and I can’t help feeling jealous of the students. The only downfall was that all that greenery inspired an outbreak of hives on my arms and legs that flared up right before we walked on stage. Luckily, I find that if my mind is elsewhere, I can largely ignore the itching.

I still had a few welts left when we arrived in LA at the Ace Hotel, where we were staying and playing. It’s an unusual luxury to be staying in the same building as your venue. Where the Green Music Center is minimalist and monotoned, the Theatre at Ace Hotel is eclectic and astonishingly over-the-top ornate. Built in the 20’s by United Artists as a movie house, it changed hands several times, even serving as the broadcast home for a televangelist, before the Ace acquired it and restored it a few years ago. I grew up in West Los Angeles, and in those days, one didn’t venture into downtown LA during non-business hours. Now, it seems a dramatic transformation has taken place, with the arrival of the Ace Hotel, tons of swanky new residential buildings, and the true marker of gentrification, a Whole Foods.

Even though we had a grueling rehearsal schedule with Will the day of performance, we all made sure to get outside and enjoy the sun. The sun in LA is special. I notice it every time I go back. Sure, the perfect 80-degree weather helps, but there’s just something brighter and livelier about the sunlight there. Having spent so many years in northern latitudes and on the east coast, I now find it almost (pleasantly) blinding. It reminds me of my childhood, of lazy days spent at Santa Monica Pier and Venice Beach, of endless watermelon in the summer. Oh, how I took that all for granted…

We mingled at a pre-concert reception, where we were greeted by a lot of familiar faces. Several of our Lab people, alumni as well as faculty (last year’s composition faculty Ted Hearne, fellows Dan Caputo, Benjamin Mitchell, Kate Outerbridge, Jordan Curcuruto, and this year’s guest faculty and artists Ros Warby and Kristy Edmunds) and even a couple former interns and employees showed up to support us. It really makes us feel like we have extended family in Los Angeles. We’re really looking forward to being back in June 2019 for LA Phil’s Noon to Midnight series!

 

Last week we camped out at snowy Interlochen, where spring has not yet sprung, for a Reich Festival featuring Drumming, Sextet, and Music for 18 Musicians. Drumming was performed entirely by students (except for the vocals) who were coached throughout the year by our Matthew and Rob Dillon from Third Coast Percussion. The result was a riveting and very professional performance, which got all sorts of whoops and hollers from the audience. The next night we performed Sextet and Music for 18 Musicians with Third Coast Percussion, Quince, and a few guests, our very own Alex Monroe and Justin Peters included. These days, Reich is always a slam-dunk hit. As I was experiencing Drumming, I was struggling to imagine what a rough road it was for Steve Reich at the beginning. I find the sounds and rhythms exciting, upbeat, meditative, and not at all boring. In fact, it was over before I realized it. I felt like I could hear it all over again, right then and there. But I guess I’m biased.

I have a hard time imagining attending a school like Interlochen because so much of my education through high school was completely separated from my music life. It seems like summer camp all year round. That’s sort of a good thing, since my closest friends were made during intense summer camp experiences, but also a weird thing, because I’m not sure I’d want to be at summer camp all the time and not see my family. I wonder how my musical development would have been affected by being around like-minded and talented musicians throughout high school instead of having it be this thing I did outside of school. There’s no question that it nurtures extraordinary talent and excellence, and I think for Matthew, who is an alum, Interlochen holds a very special place in his heart.

We returned to this lovely school a couple weeks ago to do a workshop and composer reading and were just as impressed with the students as before, if not more. It was uncharacteristically cold for March, which is to say it was very pleasant for a Chicagoan, but the trees were already in full bloom. We did our goals and visioning workshop in the beautiful new library, challenging the students to come up with their core values and purpose in 90 minutes. Some of them had obviously given it much thought already. Others, maybe not so much. One pianist told me that her real passion in life was forensic medicine. You don’t hear that too often from music students – usually it’s the other way around. After all, no one really chooses to be a struggling musician if it’s not your calling, right? Whether that was an actual discovery or just a confession, I’m not sure, but you better believe I encouraged her to pursue what she loves, or at least find a way to incorporate it into her career.

We did some masterclasses for chamber groups, one of which is starting to establish itself and experimenting with commissions by fellow students and group improv. Then we did a recording session of seven composer pieces, all in one afternoon. All delightful pieces and so different – a lot of talent on display and a pleasure to provide something that helps them in a tangible way! Above is the picture of exhausted us with who we hope are happy composers. Perhaps next time we’ll break it up over a couple of days…

Last week we traveled to Denison University, a lovely college on a hill, to do some residency work and perform a concert. Granville, Ohio is a quaint town, its population and economy much bolstered by the university. We stayed at the Granville Inn, a beautiful restored historical estate – we’re thankful they didn’t put us at the notoriously haunted Buxton Inn across the street! We also patronized Goumas Confections, a family-run shop that apparently has feuding brothers with competing locations a block away (exciting family drama). After our concert, we ran into the fabulous ETHEL, who are in residence at Denison University and doing many mind-blowing interdepartmental projects there.

Next we headed to Wilmington, the capital of the First State, and also the credit card capital of the world, according to our driver. There we parked ourselves in the Delaware Art Museum for two shows – one a sort-of pop-up series of performances during the preview showing of their new exhibit on Wyeth and Ruskin. It’s a beautifully serene room, airy and resplendent with gorgeously detailed works. We responded to the exhibit with some Peter Garland, John Cage, Angelica Negron, and Richard Reed Parry while museum members perused the works and occasionally paused to listen to us intently. The next night we gave a bonafide performance in the main atrium space, performing David Lang, John Luther Adams, and some selections from Hand Eye. They brought in some fancy lighting and white folding chairs – I think it’s about as close to a wedding set up that Eighth Blackbird will ever play.

Now we’re in Richmond, about to perform Olagón for the third time. Of course, there’s a snow storm and no one can make it in today for rehearsals…

 

We spent the better part of last week roadtripping through Eau Claire and Madison, Wisconsin. As we drove north towards Eau Claire, we watched the landscape freeze before our eyes. By the time we reached Eau Claire, we were back in the heart of winter, with snow on the ground and frigid temperatures that we thought we’d seen the last of in Chicago. But the hearts are warm, and we reunited with composer Chiayu Hsu, whom the group met waaaaay back in their Norfolk Festival days, like, in 1997 or so. We met her composition students and read through three of their pieces, then went out to a delicious meal at one of Chiayu’s favorite places.

We stayed at the Oxbow Hotel, which couldn’t be cuter (Justin Vernon’s influence, surely). Retro furniture, record players, and a collection of vinyls near the front desk from which to choose, french press coffee delivered to your room for free – what more can one ask for? Just across the street was Ramone’s ice cream  (the flavor named Exhausted Parent is just what this exhausted parent needed).

We left Eau Claire for warmer climes in Madison, where we were told to go to Old Fashioned for cheese curds. We had those, some onion strings, and a few burgers to boot. Delicious? Yes. Wise? No. I’m glad I know what cheese curds are all about now, but I think I’ll be happy to observe others indulging from now on. We were also told we could walk out on the frozen lake. I’m happy to report all of us were wise enough not to try that.

Nathalie and I spoke with the School of Business about our organization – it’s the first time a university has asked us to speak with non-musicians. There were some music majors that crept into the class, but mostly we had French majors with a business focus. They asked us some really astute questions, were genuinely shocked when we told them how our organization runs, and used some terminology I only pretended to understand. Best part was the professor offered us candy at the end.

After our performance, we drove back home to Chicago (we had to drag Michael kicking and screaming away from Madison). We were really charmed by our time there and I can’t help wondering: is all of Wisconsin is that cute?

Besides the one and half extraordinary days of warmth and sunshine – I actually wore sunglasses – this week in Princeton has been nothing but damp, cold, grey weather. Fitting, since we put on three shows of Olagón and I’m told that the weather in Ireland is exactly like this all the time.

We moved into the brand new CoLab space at the Lewis Arts complex, which is a stunning new building housing several performance spaces as well as the most beautiful and acoustically pleasing practice rooms I’ve ever been in. We rehearsed seven Princeton composer pieces in the CoLab during the week (performance tonight) with the composers, and ate what felt like every meal there as well. Aside: There is good food to be had in Princeton, but you will pay dearly for it. The prices reminded me of the prices in Australia, except then you add tax and tip. How’s a student supposed to live??

Our happy reunion with our dear friends and collaborators Dan, Iarla, and Mark was filled with stress as we tried to combine much-needed rehearsal with essential tech and lighting time. But the show must go on, and it did, getting a bit better each night. Except for the second night, where I learned the painful lesson of why one always needs to turn off one’s iPad wifi during the show. I got the dreaded software update dialog box, and in my panic, holding my instrument and needing to turn the page quickly, I accidentally hit the “install now” button instead of the “later” button right beneath it. And that was the point of no return. I watched in horror as the Apple logo filled my screen, progress bar not moving. This could take the rest of the show, I thought. I sat down as calmly as I could, instrument in my lap, looking out into the distance, listening to all the holes where I knew I should be playing. At one point, Nathalie looked to me for a cue, and I looked back and subtly (I hope) shook my head. Then, Lisa got up and I was flooded with relief because I realized this was the number with all my choreography, which was memorized. Plus, this number was about 10 minutes long. When I got back to my station, the update was nearing completion and the rest of the show went as planned. I do think I might have lost a couple years off my life, though.

Tonight we perform the seven pieces by Princeton composers at the Princeton Sound Kitchen. We’re back at the familiar Taplin Auditorium for this concert, and then home for a whopping 18 hours before leaving for Eau Claire and Madison.

Eighth Blackbird is pleased to welcome Deirdre Harrison as its new Chief Operating Officer.

Deirdre, who served as Eighth Blackbird’s Interim Development Director beginning in July, 2017, transitioned into the role of the ensemble’s Chief Operating Officer this January.  While she remains the organization’s key development officer, she will also lead its staff as its senior administrator and serve as the group’s public face alongside the six-member ensemble, who will continue their core work as artists and co-artistic directors.

Deirdre has worked for over 17 years as a senior non-profit leader and consultant in Chicago’s arts and education sectors, bringing a long track-record of collaboratively retooling systems for organizational strength, financial stability and efficiency. A veteran of supporting non-profits through periods of transition with nimbleness and infectious energy, Deirdre previously served as the Director of Development for the MacArthur Foundation-funded initiative Creative Partners. As Director of Development and Communications, Deirdre worked with the dynamic team at Rush Hour Concerts/Make Music Chicago through its successful merger with the International Music Foundation in 2016. Between 2011-2014 she helped roll out two new campuses, drive up enrollment in multiple departments, and launch a faculty concert series for the Music Institute of Chicago as its first Director of Community Engagement, and previously served as Director of Admission and Financial Aid at the newly independent Baker Demonstration School and Global Citizenship Experience Lab School.

“I am honored and excited to join this extraordinary group of artist-entrepreneurs at a pivotal moment – 21 years in, Eighth Blackbird have come of age in so many ways! The board has never been stronger, ongoing and new partnerships are thriving, including new recording plans with Cedille records. The organization is preparing to welcome its second Blackbird Creative Lab cohort, touring the ensemble’s latest evening-length collaborative project Olagón, and continuing residency work at universities across the country. This ensemble and staff are some of the hardest working colleagues I have ever known, and the sextet produces, commissions and performs exciting new music across genres.  I hope fans and friends, old and new, will join me and raise a glass to Eighth Blackbird on May 15 at our most  .  We promise a hip, happy night of music and feasting!

A dual citizen with Eire, Deirdre lived and worked as an actress for many years in Europe, premiering a number of new plays. She helped launch YaleWomen Chicago, serves as board treasurer for the performance ensemble MOCREP, volunteers for Aunt Mary’s Storybook, assisting incarcerated parents at Cook County Jail in recording stories for their children, and performs storytimes with live, improvised music with her kids project, The Lucky Trikes. Deirdre earned a double BA in English and Theater Studies at Yale, a three-year acting certificate at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, is an alumna of Ragdale Foundation and the National Guild for Community Arts Education Leadership Institute(CAELI), and  a proud member of Actors Equity Association and British Actors Equity.

 

I’m not really one for reunions. I’ve skipped every opportunity for high school, college, camp reunions, you name it. I feel like I keep in touch with the people I clicked with, and I don’t want to be thrust into a room with people who look vaguely familiar but whose names I cannot remember.

But this weekend we had the Lab reunion. I couldn’t have been happier to be stuck in a room with all these young and rising artists whom I spent a very intense two weeks with last June. And I remembered all their names.

We kicked it off with a party in our studio, full of hugs and excited voices, a disco ball, and middle eastern food from the tried and true Taste of Lebanon. The fellows have stayed in touch through a Facebook group; a couple of them have started an ensemble together; a couple others are planning projects together. Even though every fellow wasn’t able to be there, we heard news about all of them.

The next morning, we invaded Third Coast Percussion’s studio space for a presentation. They performed for us and gave us a sober and candid account of their journey to becoming one of the nation’s premier percussion quartet. Eighth Blackbird has known them forever, but I’ve never heard them talk about their history in such detail. It’s amazing to hear how similar our stories are, and yet in what ways they differ. TCP is a super hardworking group – 8 hrs a day together – and they fully accept that this leaves no room for extra-TCP activities. I was shocked at this fact, because I can’t imagine our group spending that much time together – we do all of our administrative work on our own time. But they all speak with such conviction about their commitment to their shared mission that I don’t doubt it will work for them long term – it certainly has paid off thus far.

That night we put on our first Lab Showcase concert at Constellation. It was 90 minutes of performances that were every bit as riveting and astonishing as they were at the Lab. It was after 11pm when we finished (I’m usually in bed by 9:30) but I was so wired I couldn’t fall asleep for hours. It was so satisfying to be able to present this showcase to finally answer the question of “what are you doing out there in California?”

Today we have a roundtable discussion about curation and leadership with a group of leaders in the Chicago arts scene, followed by an improvisation workshop led by Ned McGowan, and a reprise of last night’s performance at a much more appropriate time for my circadian clock (7:30pm). Those of you who can’t make it to the live performances can tune into WFMT tomorrow (Monday, January 22nd) at 8pm for a live show with Kerry Frumkin where we’ll play and do some interviews with fellows.

Last weekend we did something unprecedented. We brought to life an album that we recorded without ever performing live. In fact, before we heard the first edits for the album, none of us had even heard the music in its entirety. The recording process spurred artistic decisions – some additions here, some subtractions there, a little inspired improv here – and only some of those got written down. So when we got together to rehearse, half of it was just figuring out how we were going to play the darn show IRL.

But where there’s a (collective) will, there’s a way. We couldn’t have put together a dreamier team for this project, starting with our multi-talented composer and programmer-extraodinaire, Dan Trueman. I honestly do not know how he managed to play two instruments and a million computer cues at the same time, but he did it without breaking a sweat. He also handled every possible glitch with his invented instrument that Lisa played, the bitKlavier. And then there’s Iarla, whose voice could melt anyone’s heart, running around stage while singing Paul Muldoon’s macaronic verse in Dan’s complicated rhythms, all while looking incredibly suave and collected. Add a healthy dose of Mark, our longtime collaborator, friend, and sometime psychotherapist, who had a vision of the gorgeous show and somehow managed to convince us all to execute it, and you have the beginnings of an amazing show.

After a week of working at a breakneck pace, we spent every possible minute in the theater drilling, refining, rehearsing, and panicking. We honestly could have used two more weeks, but that is a luxury none of us could afford. I’m reminded of a passage in Tina Fey’s book, Bossypants, in which she talks about how “the show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.”

We’re doing the show two more times this season: at Princeton in February and at Richmond in March, which means two more chances to make it even better. Please come see it if you can – I guarantee it’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen…even for us.

A huge thanks to Barbara Butts, our intrepid Production Manager, the crew at Victory Gardens, and to our staff, especially Justin Peters. None of this could have happened without you!

It’s that time of year again. You know, when computers take center stage with performers and composers,  Dr. Matt mans the mother of all mixing boards, and Camp Concert Hall gets lit. Yes, it’s the annual Third Practice Electroacoustic Music Festival.

This year highlights trumpeter Sam Wells as the featured guest artist (along with us, as usual), many other repeat performers and composers, and a “transdisciplinary” laptop orchestra called L20rk.  While they were setting up, I tried many different pronunciations of L20rk out loud on Michael (not annoying at all, I’m sure). He quickly looked at the program and informed me (as I was suggesting Le-twerk?) that the “2” is silent (it’s pronounced “lohrk”). So now you know.

Every time I attend this festival, I see and hear something new. Yes, there’s the usual electronic sounds that I’ve now grown accustomed to, but this year there were pieces for glass harmonica, pipa, and motion sensors. The glass harmonica is not new, but I’ve never seen one in person. It kinda looks like a stretched out pillbug, but clear and tapered at one end. I desperately wanted to try it, but was too shy to ask. The pipa player had some computer issues at first, but then her piece unfolded magically, the processing transforming the very traditional pipa sound into something strange and mesmerizing. Now, had I not seen Pamela Z this summer at the lab, I would have been completely floored by Eli Fieldsteel’s motion sensor performance. But because I’ve seen Pamela Z’s gesture controller, I was merely amazed. He came out looking like a mashup of Robocop and Michael Jackson, wearing black gloves that were wired to his body. He then “played” the gloves using a choreography of gestures. His whole body, especially his face and eyes, was invested in the gestures, which made him look like a musical version of David Copperfield conjuring sounds out of nothing.

The technicians of 3P somehow transmogrify a normal recital hall like Camp Concert Hall into so many different spaces – an underground cave, a bustling train station, a rainforest – just by how the sound is designed. One especially notices this effect in the fixed media pieces; with the lights totally off you can really allow yourself to be fully immersed in the sound. Something that sounds like a ping pong ball bouncing can either be far off in the distance, coming towards you, or even sound like it’s bouncing inside your head. Yet other sounds sometimes feel like they are emanating from your own belly. It’s creepy, to be sure, but also very effective. Props to Matthew McCabe, aka Dr. Matt, who, in addition to having his own piece performed and being an illustrious member of our Lab faculty, makes all these pieces come alive.

One thing 3P is never without is a dash of humor. I always look forward to Joo Won Park’s performances, because they never fail to elicit a chuckle. This year, he used found objects for his piece, as well as a camera trained on his miked surface, so the audience could see the random assortment of items he was using as instruments: chattering teeth, abacus, slinky, lego, shoehorn, and comb, just to name a few. Another piece, Train(wreck) of Thought, was a fixed media work that was a pretty realistic and hilarious rendition of the composer’s actual train of thought during a boring class.

Another thing 3P is never without is us. We are featured on the last concert playing works by Molly Joyce, D. Edward Davis, Angélica Negrón, Mary Kouyoumdjian, and our very own Nathalie Joachim! Matthew is also playing Song for Low Tree by Matthew Burtner on an afternoon concert.

If you’re reading this, I’m sorry to tell you that it’s all over already.  But if you’re ever in Richmond during the first weekend in November, I encourage you to check out this free festival. At the very least, I guarantee it to be a mindbending and ear-splosive experience.

For all intents and purposes, my hometown is Los Angeles. I was born there and grew up there. But I haven’t lived there for almost twenty years now, and my immediate family has all moved away. When I’m there, I barely even recognize the city I spent the first eighteen years of my life in.

On the other hand, drop me in Philadelphia and all the complicated feelings of a hometown immediately flood my consciousness. Almost every building within a five-block radius of Rittenhouse Square has a memory attached to it, some good and some bad. This city is where I grew up musically, where I met most of my closest friends, and where I faced the harshest criticism (the majority of it coming from myself). When Eighth Blackbird came to do a three-year residency at Curtis five years ago, my shock at the brand new Lenfest Hall was quickly followed by relief when I thought that I probably wouldn’t have to play in Field Hall, the site of auditions, orchestra rehearsals and student recitals when I was a student. That small, modest hall embodies all of my best and worst musical experiences, and still features prominently in my anxiety dreams. In fact, we did have to perform there, and I remember standing in the hallway backstage wondering whether I might drop dead from my heart beating so hard.

Coming back to Curtis to work with students is one thing, and standing in front of the Philadelphia Orchestra playing a solo is quite another. Besides the fact that they are the Philadelphia Orchestra (!), that orchestra is in many ways a professional extension of Curtis. I don’t know the exact percentage of members who went to Curtis or teach at Curtis, but let’s just put it at over 50%. I subbed there for many years, even when I had a job in DC; almost every face in that orchestra is still familiar, and many of them are good friends.

The anticipation of the first rehearsal was agonizing. It was filled with dozens of reunions and small talk with people I haven’t seen in seven years or so, and double-takes from older orchestra members who recognized me but couldn’t place me. Once we started rehearsing, it still didn’t quite feel real. I was thankful for all of our own painstaking rehearsals as I just let muscle memory kick in while I marveled at the sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra up close. Our conductor, Stéphane Denève, was a tall, charismatic man with a head full of unruly curls, a thick French accent, and a joke always at the ready. His dressing room was right next to mine, and before concerts I would hear a mercurial set of piano repertoire – say, the first page of Claire de lune, then the Chopin revolutionary etude, and then maybe some jazz improv, all very expertly played. When I queried him, he replied dismissively, “Ah, there was a time when I was a bit of a pianist.”

The weekend of concerts was actually very fun, once I got over my nerves. I’ve never been more grateful to share the stage with my Eighth Blackbird colleagues, who all put me at ease with their excellence, stability, and occasional winks. We played for three very different audiences: the hard-core Thursday night subscription folks, the Friday matinee retirees, and the boisterous Saturday night crowd. They all seemed to eat it up, though I did hear about one Thursday night concert-goer who pulled an usher aside and asked, “Is it atonal?? Because if it is, I’m not going inside!” Said usher happened to find Jennifer Higdon herself, who reassured him that her piece was indeed “melodic”.  I have no idea if that lady ended up going inside or not, but if she did, I’d pay good money to hear what she thought of it!

The first thing I learned about Budapest is that it’s actually Buda and Pest, two very different areas separated by the Danube. We stayed on the Buda side, which is quieter and more residential. It is home to the stunning Buda Castle and Fisherman’s Bastion, accessible by a lot of stairs, but there wasn’t much else touristy on the Buda side that we had time to visit. On the Pest side is where all the action was, including our concert venue. There are baths, the Central Market Hall, Parliament, the opera house, and pretty much all the good food.

I spent my first morning up on the hill checking out Fisherman’s Bastion and the Buda Castle, which is undergoing some renovations. The neighborhood on the top of the hill is old and charming, and affords an incredible view of Budapest. That afternoon we went to Amadinda’s studio to rehearse Lukas Ligeti’s new piece for the first time. On the way, our host Eszter tried to help us learn to pronounce all their names: Zoltán (pretty easy to pronounce, and two of them are named Zoltán), Karolyi (a little harder), and Aurél (hopeless). One of the Zoltáns speaks very good English, so he was their spokesperson. They are all characters, but English-speaking Zoltán is truly larger than life. He wears this fantastic Turkish hat, which he says strangers have stopped him and offered him money for, and he drives a 23-year-old Saab with a vanity plate that reads JMC 433. Get it? John Milton Cage 4:33. One afternoon he drove us back to the hotel after rehearsal and bragged the whole way about how he could get there faster than anyone (14 minutes on average, but 25 minutes in traffic). I couldn’t tell you his secret route because I had my eyes squeezed shut the entire way.

Their rehearsal studio is a large one-story building tiled warehouse with one large rehearsal space, a huge storage area and a couple of smaller offices. It smells of dust and instant coffee. That, along with seeing all their percussion and cases made the space feel instantly familiar. We got right down to business rehearsing Lukas’ piece. There’s no better way to get to know people than to rehearse with them. You learn so much from watching them play, seeing them communicate, and in turn, communicating with them. I think there was initial shock on both our parts hearing the whole composite for the first time. But the piece came together pretty quickly because we were all very prepared.

After a couple of days of rehearsal, Lukas arrived. Lukas is a slight man, extremely soft-spoken, humble and gracious, and speaks a million languages, having lived all over the world. He was preceded by a television crew, who grabbed Nathalie for an interview, then proceeded to film us playing through his piece for the first time for him. Probably not what we would have chosen to do, but we rolled with it. He had some general balance comments and some questions for us about his notation, but he mostly was enthusiastic and let us do our own thing. We needed to rehearse our own repertoire for the concert, and he stayed to listen to us run our arrangements of his father’s piano etudes – a somewhat surreal experience – and the Higdon concerto, which we’re playing in a week.

The day of the concert was Friday the 13th. After a sound check, Lukas joined us in the adjacent Opus Jazz Club for dinner. The waiter brought us all bottles of water, pre-opened. Lukas had ordered a 1.5L bottle, saying how he doesn’t drink coffee or alcohol, but loves to drink a lot of water. I left the table for a moment to FaceTime with my son, and when I came back, there was a little hullabaloo at the table. I asked what was wrong, and Lukas explained that there was something very wrong with the water. Since we all had the same bottles of water, we were a little skeptical and thought maybe he was being a little neurotic. (You know how composers can be.) But he kept insisting that it was cough syrup or something, so I offered to try it. I poured a little into a glass and sniffed it first. No smell. I took a sip, and instantly spat it out as a reflex. There was no mistaking it – it was simple syrup. If you taste that when you’re expecting water, it’s not far-fetched to think someone’s trying to poison you. We called the waiter over and tried our best to explain it. He looked at us like we were crazy, but took the bottle away. A bit later, he came back with a new bottle of water and sheepishly explained that he had accidentally taken the bottle of syrup meant for mojitos from the bar. Then he joked that it was because it was Friday the 13th. Lukas was not amused.

With rehearsals every day, it was honestly pretty difficult to drag ourselves out of our jet-lagged funk to do anything exciting besides eat. We spent a morning at the Central Market Hall buying paprika, walked over to the opera house, and had some aperol spritzes by the Fisherman’s Bastion, but that’s about it. I kept seeing places I was curious about, but there just wasn’t the time or energy to see them. I hope we have an opportunity to return so I can give the city, especially the Pest side, another go.

The concert went very well, and the audience was very enthusiastic, doing that rhythmic clapping thing that we’ve encountered with European audiences. Lukas and his mom were in attendance, as well as György Kurtag, who apparently only stayed for a little of the first half. It was a fitting culmination to almost a week of hard work with Amadinda, and I think it’s safe to say we’ve made some new friends.

In about two weeks we are going to play Jennifer Higdon’s On A Wire with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Yes, that Philadelphia Orchestra. It’s been a few years since we played it last, and Nathalie has never played it. We’ve been working it back up slowly, doing memory work and woodshedding. It’s funny how some parts come back easily and stronger than ever, and other parts are like starting from scratch. I remember the terror of performing it for the first time – dropping my pick in the piano, even – but after getting over that first performance, each successive one got easier and easier. Or at least less and less terrifying.  I really feel for Nathalie, because no matter how much you rehearse something, there’s no substitute for how you will feel in a performance. And there’s always a first performance. You can’t skip over that step.

We are trying to ease the the height of that step, though. So last night we invited over some of our closest friends and supporters so we could run through the concerto for people. Sure, they’re not the judgmental public-at-large, but it still helps. We plied them with wine, cheese and hot apple cider, then ran through the solo bits of the concerto, singing and counting through the orchestra tuttis. It was great fun, and one thing we could do with our intimate gathering that we won’t be able to do with our Philadelphia audience was invite them up to the piano to peek in while we played the opening few minutes of extended piano techniques again. There’s an insane amount of coordination to fit us all around the instrument, twelve hands all doing different things inside the piano and on the keyboard at the same time, but all the audience ever sees is our butts. They’re always fascinated to discover just what is making the piano sound so mysteriously like several different instruments at once.

The run-through was pretty successful, and I think it went a long way towards building much-needed confidence for all of us. We head to Hungary on Sunday, and will only have a day or two before going to Philadelphia. See you in Budapest!

Last night our concert in Turin was sold out. The audience didn’t seem super enthusiastic with their applause at the end, but they also kept applauding for what seemed like forever. We don’t usually do encores in the states, so it didn’t occur to us until the fourth curtain call that they were probably expecting an encore…oops. 

Allora, we are prepared with an encore for the concert tomorrow here in Milan! A little aside: of all the fantastic Italian words we’ve been learning and practicing, none has quite captured our fancy like the word allora.  It feels great to say, it can be inflected in so many ways – we’re bringing it back with us to the states, so get used to it.

When we were obsessively looking up what the weather would be like in Milan all week, we were prepared for grey skies and rainy days. To our delight, we arrived in full sunshine and 70 degree weather. We literally threw our bags in our rooms and attacked the city. Lunch was imperative, so we found a cute bistro the size of a postage stamp to have spritzes and some delicious bowls of pasta (nicoise salad for gluten-free me). Then we beelined it to the nearest coffee shop for a pick-me-up before hitting the sights hard.

First stop was to the Milan Cathedral, the third-largest cathedral in the world, six centuries in the making. Everything about it is awe-inspiring, from when you first spot it in between city buildings to when it reveals itself in full view. (Warning: the pigeons are out of control. They literally eat out of people’s hands. So expect the pigeons to get personal with you.) We didn’t wait in line to go inside, but I desperately want to go back and walk around on the roof to see the detail up close.

Then we headed to La Scala, stopping at a monument to Leonardo da Vinci for a second because we heard what was clearly an opera overture being broadcast into the square. After wondering what that was all about, we twirled around to realize we were actually standing right in front of La Scala. It was smaller and less grand than one might imagine, given its reputation. Hansel und Gretel and Tamerlano are the current productions, and we briefly entertained the idea of seeing one of them until we saw the price for a decent seat (~$220). Maybe next time.

So we were off again, this time headed for the Castello Sforzesco. I was obsessed with castles as a young child, and the sight of this one reawakened all my childhood enthusiasm. It even has a preserved moat, though now drained and probably best used as a sledding hill. The complex houses a number of museums, including the Museo Pietà Rondanini, which has the last unfinished sculpture of Michelangelo. But again, our whirlwind self-guided tour of Milan had no time for long lines and the actual insides of museums, so we headed back towards the hotel to look for apericena, and then a quick rest at the hotel before heading out for dinner.

In the morning, I ventured out to find Casa Verdi, the retirement home for musicians that Verdi built at the end of his life. He and his wife are buried there, and the home lies just beyond a monument to Verdi. Since I was there on Sunday, none of the rooms with memorabilia were open to the public, but I was able to visit the mausoleum and pay my respects to him and his wife. Then it was risotto, gelato, and caffe. A quick rest, then we packed into the van for our concert at the Elfo Puccini.

Attendance was less spectacular than in Torino, but no less enthusiastic. We busted out David Lang’s learn to fly for an encore, took some selfies, shared a couple bottles of wine, and are now all faced with the decision of whether to sleep a few hours or power through to our early airport departure. It’s been a delicious and delightful time in Torino and Milano and we all want to come back again soon. Grazie mille, Italia, e arrivederci!

 

We’re in lovely Augusta Taurinorum, aka Turin, first capital of the kingdom of Italy and birthplace of gianduja, the martini, Lavazza, and bicerin, among other things, and home to Nietzsche and the Shroud of Turin. This storied city traces its origin to a mythological drunken bull who defeated a dragon (a simplification, but that’s basically the story). These days there’s a famous bull on the sidewalk outside Caffe Torino whose balls you kick for good luck. Gotta love the Italians!

We arrived rather late at night but headed straight out for a tasting menu and a bottle of wine at a nearby restaurant. This would become a pattern, as the wine is amazing and affordable, and everything on the menu is good. Before you know it, it’s past midnight and you’re drunkenly meandering your way back to the hotel with a full belly, admiring how the piazzas come alive at night, buzzing with people and glowing with lights.

We took a free tour of the city in the morning, walking around the city center for the better part of three hours, getting historical insights and anecdotes along the way. I highly recommend this tour if you’re in Turin, and you can’t beat the price. After the tour, we took a long lunch in a quiet bistro across from the Corpus Domini church and right under a pierced building (see gallery). Another architectural quirk of the city are the random cannonballs half-buried in the walls of some buildings, placed there to commemorate a siege (honestly wasn’t paying attention to the guide at that moment). Pretty soon it was time for aperol spritzes next to the river Po, then a quick rest before wandering to find dinner. After about an hour of searching, we settled on a restaurant right around the corner from our hotel. There’s no more civilized and pleasant way to spend an evening than to share a bottle of wine over dinner outside in a gorgeous piazza. We stayed for a few hours, and as the temperature began to drop precipitously, the waiter came by to drape a fleece blanket around my shoulders. What service!

The next day I decided to wander around aimlessly, mostly covering areas we hadn’t explored on the tour. I did have one mission: to bring back a bunch of gianduja chocolates. (If you’re not familiar with gianduja, think Baci and Ferrero Rocher to get a sense of the flavor. This chocolate-hazelnut combo is my desert island flavor. Absolutely delicious.) Luckily, gianduja is ubiquitous here, so I only needed to quickly duck into the first confetteria I saw to get a pretty bag of the triangular delights to bring home. I also wanted to try bicerin, the so-called breakfast of kings. But as I chatted about it with Michael – it’s hot chocolate, espresso, and whipped cream in layers – he burst my bubble by pointing out that it was really just a mocha that I could get at any Starbucks back home. And they’re quite expensive here, like 6 euros. Breakfast of kings, indeed. So I passed on that.

We perform tonight at the Teatro Reggio. I’ve been seeing banners all over the city for the festival we’re a part of, so hopefully the Turinos will give us a chance. If not, we’ll have the opportunity to try again two days later in Milan!

Summer was jam packed with the inaugural Blackbird Creative Lab, and we took some much-needed us-time afterwards. Some of us chilled at home with our families, some of us kept on teaching, and some of us played more new music.

But now we’re back, exactly six weeks older and wiser, ready to start the season off with a bang. This Friday, the Ace Hotel is hosting us for a season kickoff event. There will be cocktails, nibbles, and music, of course! Next week, we are off to Italy for our Turin and Milan debuts (espresso, gelato, and fashion!), and in October we head to Budapest for a collaboration with Amadinda Percussion Group, featuring a premiere by Lukas Ligeti.

BUT WAIT! That’s not all. The really big news is that our very own Nick Photinos just released his debut solo album Petits Artéfacts on New Amsterdam Records. None of the works have been recorded before, and it features a Pascal Le Boeuf commission for Nick and percussionist/producer Doug Perkins. Nick played a release concert at Constellation last Sunday, featuring his fabulous pianist wife, Yasuko Oura, and Doug Perkins. We were wowed. You can be, too. Buy now and buy often!