It was a historic week: The Arts Club turned 100, we were on TV and radio, and the Cubs made the World Series. 

Let’s unpack that. For the Arts Club centennial celebration, they commissioned a piece for us by our old friend David Lang. Inspired by the tradition of artist lectures given at the Arts Club over the past century, David chose a lecture by Gertrude Stein, Composition as Explanation, and “musicalized” it. The result is currently seven movements, four for all six of us, three for subsets, in which we speak or sing text from Stein’s lecture. It is by varying degrees serious, funny and touchingly beautiful.  We gave a preview performance at the gala celebration, and then during the open house the next day, we performed the first four movements twice as a set and the other three movements we sprinkled around the building in between other artist lectures. 

The TV and radio appearances were promotional for the event. Still, it’s not every day we’re on Chicago Tonight. Michael, Nathalie and I performed the Lang movements for our subset, and we got to experience the magic of the small screen. (See it here.) I finally figured out how teleprompters work! (Hint: there are mirrors involved.) But, since we didn’t have a use for them, they just projected giant screens of our own faces back at us, which was more than a little distracting. Oh, and it was freezing cold in the studio. Like, teeth-chattering, finger-numbing, instrument-cracking cold. As I was told by the makeup artist as she dabbed my nose, I should be happy because otherwise I’d be an oily, sweaty mess on TV. 

I thought being on the radio a couple days later would be easy peasy, given that we were now TV veterans. At least it would be warmer, and no one cares if we’re sweaty or oily. But there were other surprises. While we knew it would be live, we didn’t realize that WGN broadcasts live onto the street, and the studio is a glass fishbowl. So there were people hanging out, taking pictures, running for their buses home, and one guy who just stood right outside for twenty minutes, staring at me and leisurely eating a can of soup. (It was Progresso, if you must know.) 

And last but certainly not least, our very own Chicago Cubs shut out the Dodgers 5-0 and are going to battle the Indians in the World Series! If you know anything about baseball, which I don’t, you know this is a Big Deal. The Cubs have one of the most exciting teams in history (just watch Baez for guaranteed athletic entertainment), but also one of the most enduring curses. As it turns out, the Indians have their own curse (as well as pretty much every other baseball team with a history of losing). It’s going to be an epic Battle of the Curses. You can’t live in Chicago and not feel the buzz of excitement mixed with the apprehension of superstition. I really want to trash-talk the Indians and make grand predictions, but even I know enough about baseball not to say anything remotely jinx-able. So I’ll just stick with #gocubsgo!

8th Blackbird FINAL

We are thrilled to announce our 2016 MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions! For the first time in the award’s history, MacArthur is recognizing 14 creative and effective Chicago arts nonprofits like us, including our Creative Partners fellow Lucky Plush (congrats @LuckyPlush!). #MacAward

This remarkable honor is a tribute to our talented and hardworking ensemble and staff along with our committed board and generous donors. Their shared commitment over the last 20 years has built an innovative organization that creatively and effectively moves music forward.

This award is a significant investment in our long-term future. It comes with a $400,000 grant for capacity building and sustainability. For us, that means building our cash reserves, upgrading technology and completing a strategic plan.

On behalf of the birds, our board and staff, we would like to express our gratitude to the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for this incredible honor. We especially thank Cate Fox at The MacArthur Foundation for her guidance and encouragement.

…Filament. Eighth Blackbird.

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That’s right. We won another Grammy! I wasn’t able to be there (busy changing diapers) but I watched this screenshot take place live online and I whooped and hollered for my very glamorous ensemble-mates and for my very first golden statue (which I will accept from the mail man with a prepared speech). I can’t wait to hear all the juicy tidbits about Taylor Swift encounters and ritzy swag bags. Hope they saved something for me…

Thanks to everyone who helped make this album happen: Bryce Dessner, Nico Muhly, Son Lux (Ryan Lott), and of course the granddaddy of them all, Philip Glass. Thanks to Jim Ginsburg and Cedille Records. Thanks to our wonderful staff and supportive friends and family. It truly takes a village.

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We’re celebrating Valentine’s Day with a trip to sunny California! We begin our stay in NorCal, Berkeley to be exact, with an appearance on CalPerformances. Show your love for us by joining us on February 14th in Zellerbach Hall for Hand Eye. Get more info about our program here or go straight to buying tickets here. We hope to see you there!

The next day we head down to SoCal for the fabulous, star-studded glamour of the Grammy Awards! We’ll be walking the red carpet with the likes of Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, and even the Queen Bee! Okay, not really, because the classical awards ceremony is in the afternoon, but we will be at both ceremonies, dressed to the nines, Ben Stiller selfie stick in hand. Wish us luck!!!

160118_rebus3Q: What’s cooler than playing at Carnegie Hall?

A: Having these awesome puppies for sale while playing at Carnegie Hall! 

We thought our Filament CD cover was pretty cool, but our design god Karl Jensen has truly outdone himself with this limited edition design of our brand new Hand Eye CD. It’s more than a CD – it’s a puzzle, it’s a toy, it’s art. Every part of it is specially designed and we assembled them ourselves in our studio. We only have a limited supply of these, and once they’re gone, they’re gone forever. Get yours now!

Only at our shows, the MCA store (starting 1/23/16), or by asking Annie very nicely at annie@eighthblackbird.org. 

To celebrate the release of our most recent album Filament, we called upon the brilliant animator Nathaniel Murphy and his team to give a listen and create something inspired by a track on the recording.  Nathaniel chose the somber murder ballad “Pretty Polly” as the subject for his gruesome tale.  Have a look and listen at this and some of our other videos at www.vimeo.com/eighthblackbird.

We spent the first part of this week visiting Yale, where the group has not been for at least ten years. We had a masterclass combined with a “business of chamber music” talk the day before our performance, where we heard some Stravinsky and Ligeti. The level of playing was as high as we expected it to be – not surprising because we recognized familiar faces from Curtis and the like. It really makes one feel old when you start recognizing students you met as undergrads now in graduate and post-grad programs. It’s also wonderful to be able to see students at different points in their journey. We’ve been experimenting with different formats for Hand Eye performance, specifically with regard to applause between pieces and whether to bow or speak or just continue playing. We tried respecting the evening-length nature of the work as a whole at Lawrence University, but we didn’t really feel like ourselves not talking and acknowledging audience appreciation. So we tried a compromise at Yale: talking after the first piece (Christopher Cerrone’s), bowing if there was applause between the second and third, then talking after intermission (we had to take selfies anyways) and announcing there would be no break between pieces on the second half. Matthew talked on the first half, confessing that he was in fact a Yale dropout, which got plenty of laughs. He spent one year in the Masters program at Yale before leaving to continue full-time with eighth blackbird. I myself strongly considered going to Yale for undergrad and again for grad school, but in both instances decided not to. (Had I known then that there would be a Shake Shack and Chipotle with a block of Sprague Hall, I might have reconsidered.) Then, after intermission Lisa told her now-infamous Yale audition story of how she thought it would be a good idea to play Aaron Kernis’ Superstar Etude No. 1, which involves not only repeatedly screaming “Wooo baby!“, but also playing clusters with your left foot. She did not get in. Despite our colorful history with Yale, Hand Eye was very well received and we were thrilled to have Rob Honstein and Amy Beth Kirsten among the familiar faces in attendance. And the audience was not above indulging our audience selfie habit, as you can see.

One of the ongoing programs we’re involved in at the MCA is the Tuesday night series. We’re commandeering the second Tuesday evening of each month that we’re here, and we were thrilled to have David T. Little in town to start us off with a bang. He sent us a sketch of his new piece for us, Ghostlight, and we spent a couple days rehearsing it in the gallery. This past Tuesday, he presented some excerpts with our help and talked about his composition process and the experience of collaborating with a group like eighth blackbird on a commission. Back in August, David visited us in Chicago and conducted individual interviews with us that included some bizarre questions, like, “how would your instrument become a pencil?” These questions led to some humorous conversation, but he really took our answers to heart, even incorporating  Michael’s words verbatim into a recorded track that will be played. David said that this piece is somewhat of a departure for him, but in many ways, all the elements of what we love about his music are still there: the heavy metal groove, the theatricality, and even the text, though it is pretty obscured for now. We love the idea and symbolism of the ghostlight, and the way he incorporated inspiration from the upcoming surrealist exhibit at the MCA and homages to his personal influences. Nathalie (the lucky thing) has hands down the most exciting staging, with a ladder to climb, magnets that she’s throwing at a garbage can, and a tam-tam to bang on. She also is currently the only one who speaks text, and gets to manipulate the actual ghostlight. All this could change, of course. This is only a draft, as David marked clearly on every single page of our parts. And there were already significant changes in the two days that we worked on it. But we love what we have so far, and the Tuesday evening audience seemed to concur. We’ll have to wait until March for the full effect – it premieres at the Kennedy Center March 7 and then we bring it back to the MCA on March 25 and 26. In the meantime, mark your calendars to come to the MCA on the second Tuesdays of the month. Admission is free for Illinois residents, the museum is open until 8, and we’ll be there!

Last week took us to our old stomping ground, Cincinnati, where we played on the Chamber Music Series and cavorted with some CCM students. It was a quick trip, but always delightful to see all the changes and hear all the “when we were students here” stories. My favorite is the rehearsal studio in the condemned building that only had a urinal. Those were the days… We went directly from Cincinnati to a three-day residency at Lawrence University, where our schedule was jam-packed with master classes, talks, lunches with students, and finally a concert. Appleton is a charming city, a perfect setting for a university that is reminiscent of Oberlin in many ways. The students were engaged, eager, and curious, and we got to spend some quality time with several of them over the three days we were there. Nathalie, queen of all things social media-related, came up with the idea of taking audience selfies as a way to document her first year with us and give audiences something fun to look for on our Instagram account. So we test-drove the idea at our concert and it was a big hit (as one might imagine it would be on a college campus). We had a lot of fun doing it, but the real test will be someplace like the Kennedy Center. Do you double dare us??

That’s Polish for cheers. It’s pretty much the only Polish word I picked up during our week in Wroclaw participating in the 50th anniversary of the Wratislavia Cantans Festival. The Polish language is a hard nut to crack! The people we encountered, on the other hand, were uniformly warm and open. We met up with the extraordinary Agata Zubel, who collaborated with us on a fiendishly difficult program including her work Cascando, and who just knocked our socks off with her virtuosity and non-diva-ness. With only two days of rehearsal, we pulled off three concerts in Wroclaw, Krotoszyn, and Olawa. Agata took us for pierogies our first day of rehearsal, and some of us topped that evening off with a second helping plus many pitchers of beer. There was, in general, a lot of drinking. Yes, we had sausages; in fact, our hotel breakfast was a veritable smorgasbord of sausages, many wrapped in bacon. But in my mind, the star of the show was the potato. I challenge anyone to find a way of cooking the humble potato that the Polish haven’t already thought of and mastered. My favorite were served on a skewer and, of course, wrapped in bacon. But enough about food. Wroclaw is a charming cathedral-studded European city with a mix of Bohemian, Austrian, and Prussian influences, reflecting the long and complicated history of the city.

It does have some surprising quirks, namely, the whimsical dwarves scattered about the old town center. I had a map of them, fully intending to go dwarf-hunting, but only managed to catch the few that I happened upon during my forays for shopping or food. They are a commemoration of the surrealist dwarf graffiti that was the signature of the underground anti-communist Orange Alternative. I also happened upon a striking and creepy sidewalk sculpture depicting a dark time of martial law. The hall we played in is a grand addition twelve years in the making, just opened three days before we arrived. The acoustic treatment in the gorgeous main hall was truly state-of-the-art, with completely retractable ceiling clouds and wall panels. We didn’t play in that hall but we were treated to a private tour. Our concert took place downstairs in the Red Hall, so named for its red walls, and we had the distinct honor of being not only the first amplified program, but the only new music program on the festival. I think the audience liked it, judging from the rhythmic clapping that seems to be a thing in Europe. We treated them to Brushy Fork as an encore, which they may have liked best of all. The next day took us to Krotoszyn, a quaint old city that we were told was a military base, and as such, was not searchable by GPS until a year and a half ago. We were in a tiny, sweltering venue that had the audience right up in our grill. We ended our tour in Olawa, at a newly-built hall converted from an old movie theater. We all had a great time exploring Wroclaw. I especially want to thank our new friends Karol and Alicja, who took care of us every step of our trip – even sitting through our rehearsals. You guys are the best and we hope to see you again soon!

WebThis engagement is supported by Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation through USArtists International in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

 How does this always happen? We end the season, exhausted but with all sorts of ambitions to make the most of our various summer adventures, whether it’s off to teach at Bang on a Can or salmon fishing in Alaska or never getting out of bed. And then, in the blink of an eye, somehow we’re back in the studio, bashing our heads against a new wall of unfamiliar repertoire with a new flutist while an army of new faces inhabits our staff offices.

Well, okay, to be fair, some of that doesn’t always happen.  I’m glossing over some huge changes, namely our fabulous new flutist, Nathalie Joachim (read more here), who after a week or so of rehearsal already feels like family, and our new… (dramatic deep breath)… Creative Partners director, Anne Cauley, production stage manager, Madeleine Borg, business manager, Kelley Dorhauer, and new intern, Elizabeth Brown. That’s a lot of new faces for our little mom and pop storefront.

And (talk about burying the lede) we officially moved into our gallery space at the MCA! It was a crazy week. We spent Monday moving and setting up, as you can see in the pictures, then had a solid two days of rehearsal and a release party for our new CD Filament (available for pre-order NOW on iTunes, get your free track download here). We really had no idea how museum patrons would react to us, but it’s been pretty wild so far. Tuesday night was our first night, and because it’s a free day and stays open until 8pm, we had a lot of traffic. People seemed genuinely curious, bewildered, fascinated, amused, you name it. There were some who sat right down and stayed for an hour and others who only glanced at us on their way somewhere else. I won’t lie, it was hard to rehearse, not because we were uncomfortable being watched, but because of the general noise level – we’re right next to the main staircase, and the din from bustling patrons can be heard from all floors at once – and because we’re so interested in the people – it’s incredibly stimulating to see all these new faces experiencing us for the first time in such an unexpected way. I wanted to watch the people instead of my colleagues. And the next day, when the stroller tour came through, it was all but impossible to concentrate with all the cute babies and toddlers bouncing around, enjoying Child of Tree and dancing like only the incredibly young can.

All in all, it’s been a very auspicious and exciting peek into what’s in store for us and the museum patrons for the next ten months or so. Our rehearsal schedule is posted monthly here. Please drop by and say hello – we don’t mind interruptions! We’ll be in Poland next week, but the galleries always stay activated with immersive video and audio, as well as the Child of Tree installation that you can explore.

The time has come for us to officially say goodbye to our beloved Tim. Though he’s traipsing the world doing Tim-fabulous things, he will still call Chicago home, which is an immense relief to us. We’ll all be keeping close tabs on him over at www.timothymunro.com. Bookmark it. Memorize it. Tattoo it on your palm. There are too many things we will miss about Tim, most of all his musical contributions to eighth blackbird over the past nine years. I speak for myself here, but I know my colleagues will agree that his presence immeasurably shaped and broadened the group’s personality. But that’s not all. Of a long list of slightly less important things we will miss about Tim, here are the top five:

  1. his accent
  2. his T-shirts
  3. watching him watch Berlin Philharmonic online
  4. drinking beer with him
  5. making him fetch things in high places

I asked him what some of his favorite eighth blackbird memories were, as well as what he will and won’t miss:

  1. scarfing down dinner in 10 minutes between two full, crazy, memorized shows back-to-back in Ann Arbor –  ending at after midnight

  2. playing my first New York show (after driving 14 hours through the snow in the 8bb van…those were the days! Oh, and we stayed at Hotel Leo, a Catholic “hotel” with crucifixes above the twin bed…). Actually, EVERY New York show. The allure will never wear off for me…

  3. eating a post-dinner feast at Denny’s in Conway, Arkansas, because nowhere else was open after 9pm, and having Lisa attempt to order poached eggs (the waitress’s response: “Um, I checked, and I don’t think we have the right machine for that…”)

  4. feeling like a “proud mum” as I played with 8bb for my fam and friends in Melbourne (a one-off, “run-out” trip to Australia that lasted…four days…)

  5. my “love and hate” can be summed up in packing up percussion after a concert. It can be a marvelous debrief (“what the f*** happened in the third movmement?” “did you hear that woman in the audience SNORT?!” “quick! Who is the person walking towards me right now? I maybe know the face…”), but also a serious slog after the high of a concert. The labor certainly kept me honest – no fancy-pants attitudes allowed in 8bb!

Most importantly, though, he writes, “honestly, the thing I will most miss is the feeling of taking the stage with the five of you and, regardless of what came before, puffing up my chest with the feeling of ALL FOR ONE AND ONE FOR ALL. That will be the hardest thing for me to recapture in the future.” Us, too, Tim. We miss you already, but are so happy and excited for all that lies ahead of you. You’re welcome anytime, and you’ll always get a comp. 🙂

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We headed to Great Lakes a few weeks ago to finally premiere the full acoustic version of Hand Eye on the closing concert of the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival. Ted Hearne, Jacob Cooper, Andrew Norman, and Christopher Cerrone were able to be there with us and offer valuable feedback (and last-minute changes) during our rehearsals. After playing it through at home in our studio, we decided that it needed an intermission, and that intermission perhaps necessitated a slight change in the order of the pieces. If you ever wondered how the six of us in eighth blackbird ever make decisions, try the six of us plus the six composers of Sleeping Giant. Everyone has a different opinion on everything, especially the order of pieces, which is really crucial to the flow of the entire evening. So, we tried it one way at Great Lakes and got many differing opinions, and I’m sure we’ll be trying it another in subsequent performances. Maybe the addition of Deborah Johnson’s video projections will demand yet another switcharoo. In any case, the audience, including our commissioners Stuart and Maxine Frankel, seemed to love it.

We flew back on the Sunday morning after the premiere and showed up at IV Lab recording studio Monday morning bright and early to sound check. We were joined by the incomparable Elaine Martone as producer and Michael Bishop as engineer, a true dynamic duo. We worked hard and as fast as we could, laying down 75 minutes of music in three days. It was grueling, frustrating, and also great fun. It was my first studio recording experience with eighth blackbird, and as such, a really good experience, thanks to the efficiency and morale-boosting dynamic duo in the booth. It’s a very different animal to play in a small room for a giant microphone hanging above your head instead of an audience. You get no feedback, no interaction – just your own sound disappearing into silence and the thoughts in your head about whether what you just played was horrible or not. It’s easy to lose morale when asked to play something over and over again without hearing it, but listening back is also a tricky thing. It’s hard to listen back just enough – too much and it’s a waste of time and breaks the physical flow of playing, too little and you have no idea what you’re working with. Again, thanks, Elaine, for managing all of this for us!

The staff at IV Lab were also fantastic, and the building itself is a hoot. The hallways were lined with dozens of vintage amplifiers and a harmonium. The lounge is painted floor to ceiling with a surrealistic, post-apocalyptic (if audio equipment were to be the only survivors of a nuclear blast) mural, which I spent every free minute examining. After we wrapped up, we officially started our summer hiatus. It was easy to think that we just finished something huge, but I had to remember, this is just the start of our Hand Eye journey.

 

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Last month we had another fun and productive workshop week for Olagon. Dan and Iarla joined us in the studio with some new music and mockups to try out. We were missing Michael, who was on the other side of the world playing with Hong Kong Philharmonic, but our new flutist Nathalie was able to fly in for the week and spitball with us while juggling apartment searching appointments.

Dan had fleshed out some earlier sketches, adding sections and filling out the orchestration. I had brought my older Olagon materials from our last workshop, and it was fascinating to see the evolution of thought on Dan’s part. He also worked up an 8bb-only piece that was fiendishly difficult (thanks, Dan!) – we were only barely able to play it up to speed by the end of the week.

As usual, we mixed work with play, enjoying Iarla’s larger-than-life personality and cornucopia of implausibly ridiculous stories. We talked about the ultimate scope of the project, including different versions for touring, and about the exciting possibility of collaborating with animators, directors, and/or filmmakers. This stage of development is immensely exciting, because we all just sit around a table and dream big – every idea is eye-opening and leads to more ideas, and no one is forced to think about the sobering logistics yet.

We ended the week with an intimate gathering of friends eager to hear what the heck Olagon was all about. We stumbled through some of the harder stuff, but overall it was a great way to not only show our friends the material, but also for us to get a grasp on what it sounds like in the context of a semi-performance. We then had a scrumptious dinner at Farmhouse in Evanston and said our teary goodbyes.

Watch here for updates, including an Olagon teaser video coming soon…

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A couple of weeks ago, we visited Curtis for the last official week of our three-year residency. It was a busy and exciting week with Steve Mackey in residence, and we pulled together a wonderful program of his music that was live-streamed on Curtis’ website. His music is super fun but unbelievably challenging, so there wasn’t much time during the week to reflect on our past time at Curtis.

The concert went well, the students pulled it together lightning-fast (as usual), and we basically only had time to hug and then turned around and flew home. We didn’t even really get to say a proper goodbye and a heartfelt thank-you for the hard work of the past three years. But now it’s almost two weeks later and we’re all ensconced in our hotel rooms in London for a Barbican-fest this weekend, and the reality that our residency is over is just beginning to dawn on me. Aside from being sad that I can no longer look forward to my four weeks a year of breakfasts at Little Pete’s, I have to wonder: What impact did we have on the school? The students? How long would it last?

The Curtis of my era was a burnished old-school conservatory, the best at attracting and training world-class musicians. The students that benefited from that system became mega-stars like Hilary Hahn, Yuja Wang and Lang Lang, serving only to reinforce the Curtis tradition. But for many students, this one-track training wasn’t enough; they struggled out in the real world. The Curtis of today is trying to prevent that for future students. It has reinvented its curriculum, erected impressively modern new buildings, and hired many new people. But old habits die hard, and a near-hundred-year-old tradition cannot be transformed so quickly. And it’s not just Curtis – this goes for almost all of the conservatories in the nation.

This is not to say that Curtis isn’t on the right track or that they don’t recognize the need for culture shift. I think they are and that their hearts are in the right place. I have been so impressed and envious of what current students are experiencing compared to my time at Curtis. But, as small a school as Curtis is, it’s still a big ship to steer. Logistical concerns were always in the forefront because now that Curtis is expanding the breadth of its education, the students have way too much to do. Despite that, we still put together some great programs and challenging projects (remember the In C lounge party??). We exposed them to as many different artists as we could get through the door. We mentored them as earnestly as we could.

Our goal was not to merely shake things up for shaking’s sake, but to jar students into seeing broader perspectives, ones that might even be wildly different from the student sitting right next to them but just as valid. To problem-solve. To question everything. And I think we definitely accomplished that with students that were open and ready for that. Some students immediately took to us and were ravenously hungry for interaction. For others, our presence may have planted a seed that won’t sprout for many years. This is why it’s hard to measure a lofty goal like ours in just three years. And it’s also not fair to judge Curtis when it’s only started changing in the last several years. Sometimes I wonder if Curtis will react to our residency like a river flowing around a rock. But then I think of all the individual students we’ve developed relationships with, and whom we will no doubt continue mentoring. I think of their hopes and ambitions and know that at the new Curtis they are equipped with the resources to achieve them. They only need think of them first.

Here’s to a creative, productive, and meaningful past three years. A big thanks to the Mellon Foundation for making it possible and to Curtis for being our partner in crime. It’s the end of our official residency but only the start of what we hope will be a long and fruitful relationship.

Check out this video from WHYY!

There are officially nine (9) days until our debut at Old Town School of Music! We’re really excited to finally perform at one of Chicago’s most venerable cultural institutions, and we have a lineup of our greatest hits in store, including a four-hand piano work by our very own Lisa Kaplan. The other two hands for each of the three movements of her piece, whirligig, will be supplied by Nick, Matthew, and yours truly. Also on the program is a duo by Timo Andres, sextets by Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner and Andy Akiho, as well as an arrangement of works we call Songs of Love and Loss

Come one, come all! It’s a rare treat for us to play our beloved hometown, and doubly special to play at Old Town for the first time. Tickets are only $25, and if you’re a member, they’re $23. See you there!!

Info and tickets here.