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eighth blackbird launches new “Tune-In” festival in NYC

eighth blackbird’s recital at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall on January 31 made for “a brilliant evening” (; according to the Financial Times’s Martin Bernheimer, the Grammy Award-winning sextet “proved that musical modernism can thrive without dour pretension.”  In a five-star review, Bernheimer praised the group’s “impeccably balanced, usefully annotated program,” and concluded: “The blackbirds, celebrating their 15th season, performed…with bracing insight and nonchalant virtuosity.  Clearly, they know how to handle noble accents and lucid, inescapable rhythms.”  Now, on February 16–20, eighth blackbird returns to New York City to help launch the new “Tune-In” festival at the cavernous Park Avenue Armory, not only as performer but as curator.  Festival highlights include the New York premieres of the sextet’s new two-part “PowerFUL/less” program and of John Luther Adams’s monumental Inuksuit.
At a time when, as reports, “musical organizations have gone public with their concern at the absence of the under-30 generation in the audience for classical concerts,” eighth blackbird’s inventiveness and willingness to break the mould are all too welcome.  As the group’s flutist, Tim Munro, explains in the same piece, the sextet tries “to create a different performance aesthetic…, to find ways of emotionally engaging an audience.”  This philosophy has proved equally valuable to eighth blackbird in its curating capacity, as became clear after the 2009 Ojai Music Festival.  Mark Swed commented in the Los Angeles Times: “The Chicago-based new music sextet eighth blackbird took over this year’s Ojai Music Festival in Libbey Bowl for four days and packed it full with more and more varied music (and music theater) than ever before in the quirky, famous festival’s 63-year history.”
Having thus established itself as the first choice for new-music festivals seeking inspired curatorship, eighth blackbird was selected to curate the Park Avenue Armory’s new “Tune-In” festival in New York City.  Comprising four concerts of contemporary music, “Tune-In” brings together an array of leading new-music groups, including San Diego-based red fish blue fish; New York City’s Argento Chamber Ensemble; Newspeak; and Sympho, with Paul Haas.  Part palace, part industrial shed, the Armory fills a critical void in the cultural ecology of New York by enabling artists to create—and the public to experience—unconventional work that could not otherwise be mounted in traditional performance halls and museums.  With its soaring 55,000-square-foot Wade Thompson Drill Hall, reminiscent of 19th-century European train stations, the Armory boasts cathedral-like acoustics and an informal ambience that offers a change from the confines and formalities of the traditional concert hall experience.  
Closing the festival is the New York (and indoor) premiere of Inuksuit (2009) by John Luther Adams—described by the New Yorker as “one of the most original musical thinkers of the 21st century”—whose composition features more than 70 percussionists moving throughout the expansive hall during the performance.  Other highlights include eighth blackbird and friends playing special versions of the group’s new politically-charged, two-part program—“PowerFUL/less”—presenting the cases for and against Stravinsky’s notoriously incendiary claim that “music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all.”
Part one, “Powerful,” inspired by novelist Chinua Achebe’s scathing rebuttal of Stravinsky (“Art for art’s sake is just another piece of deodorized dogshit”), presents music freighted with passionate political beliefs: Frederic Rzewski’s intense musical grenade Coming Together (1972) and works by Cage, Andriessen, Rob Davidson, David Little, and Matt Marks.  After the group recently unveiled the program at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, the Chicago Tribune praised its “taut, involving performance” of the Rzewski, which features prescient text from a letter by Sam Melville—a political prisoner who was shortly to die in the 1971 Attica prison riot—in an arrangement by eighth blackbird violinist/violist Matt Albert.  During the February 17 performance, a multimedia component will be provided by video installation artist Ann Hamilton—winner of a MacArthur Fellowship and of the 2008 Heinz Award for Arts and Humanities—whose original art will be projected onto screens and onto the Drill Hall’s soaring 69-foot ceiling.
Part two, “Powerless”, celebrates the rich and multifaceted world of “absolute” music that seeks no meaning beyond its own internal structures: works that, in composer Luciano Berio’s words, “can’t stop the wars, can’t make the old younger or lower the price of bread, make tulips grow in [one’s] garden, or alter the flow of the ocean currents.”  These comprise Reich’s seminal Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76), marking the composer’s 75th birthday in 2011; Bach’s timeless Chaconne from the Partita in D minor, arranged by Albert for the same percussion-dominated forces as Reich’s masterpiece; Kurt Schwitters’s UrSonate for solo speaker (1922-32); and in vain, scored for 24 musicians, by Georg Friedrich Haas (2000).  As Albert explains, eighth blackbird is eager to gauge audience reactions to the two programs: “Will they feel the political message in the overtly political music?  And, on the other side, will the reaction to the “Powerless” program be purely musical?”  In any case, listeners need not feel compelled to choose between the two; as Time Out Chicago argues, “perhaps the greatest accomplishment of this bipolar program is that 8bb prove both sides right.”
Festival program details follow below.  Much additional information is available at the group’s web site:
“Tune-In” festival
Park Avenue Armory
February 16-20
643 Park Avenue, NYC
Wednesday, February 16:
Paul Haas, Paul Fowler, Bora Yoon: ARCO (world premiere; commissioned by Park Avenue Armory; perf. by Sympho)
Thursday, February 17: “Powerful”
Frederic Rzewski: Coming Together (1972) arr. Matt Albert (perf. by eighth blackbird)
Matt Marks: A Portrait of Glenn Beck; David Little: sweet light crude; Stefan Weisman: 
I Would Prefer Not To (perf. by Newspeak)
John Cage: Credo in US (1942) for percussion ensemble (perf. by red fish blue fish)
Louis Andriessen: Workers Union (1975) for any number of loud-sounding instruments (perf. by eighth blackbird and friends)
Friday, February 18: “Powerless”
Georg Friedrich Haas: in vain (2000) for 24 players (perf. by Argento Ensemble)
Kurt Schwitters: UrSonate (1922-32) for solo speaker (NY premiere of arrangement; perf. by Steve Schick)
J.S. Bach: Chaconne from the Partita in D minor (1717-23) for solo violin arr. Matt Albert (perf. by eighth blackbird and friends)
Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians (1974-76) (perf. by eighth blackbird and friends)
Sunday, February 20: “Inuksuit”
John Luther Adams: Inuksuit (2009; NY/indoor premiere; perf. by members of eighth blackbird and more than 70 percussionists)
Each concert is preceded by an Artist Talk with Armory Consulting Artistic Director Kristy Edmunds and the artists and key creative forces behind the evening’s concert.  Talks are free for concert ticket-holders.

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