Friday, May 9, 2008

Eighth Blackbird is one of America’s foremost contemporary chamber ensembles. The majority of the music the sextet performs and records — by composers such as Frederic Rzewski, Jennifer Higdon and Steve Reich — are new pieces commissioned especially for them. So it’s a surprise to hear the group’s pianist, Lisa Kaplan, say, “I had never played anything more contemporary than Copland before going to college.”

That was Oberlin College, and it’s where Eighth Blackbird, named after the Wallace Stevens poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” was formed in 1996. The contemporary music ensemble happened to be the most prestigious at the school — partly because its conductor was the then-24-year-old Tim Weiss, barely older than his students but “so enthusiastic, so talented,” says Ms. Kaplan, speaking by phone from the group’s home base of Chicago. “Everybody wanted to play in it,” she says.

That includes Ms. Kaplan, who wasn’t that familiar with contemporary classical music. The group she joined went on to win its division of the Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition.

“After that, we thought maybe we should keep doing this, maybe for another year,” she recalls. “Every year we would have a sit-down. Before you know it, it’s 12 years later.” She laughs. “If you asked me when I entered school at Oberlin what I’d be doing when I graduated, I never thought I’d be doing this.”

Eighth Blackbird, though, shows no signs of slowing down. They’ve recorded six albums; their latest, “Strange Imaginary Animals,” won this year’s Grammy Award for best chamber music performance.

They’ve performed around the world. At home in the states, they’ve played (among many other venues) Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, the Library of Congress and the Kennedy Center. The ensemble — which also includes violinist and violist Matt Albert, percussionist Matthew Duvall, clarinetist Michael J. Maccaferri, flutist Tim Munro and cellist Nicholas Photinos — is in residence both at the University of Chicago and the University of Richmond.

When Ms. Kaplan first approached her professor 12 years ago, he asked her two questions: “Are you good? Do you have good rhythm?” Listening to Eighth Blackbird’s recordings, it’s easy to see why. Powerful, driving rhythms have been part of chamber music since Beethoven and Schubert, but they’re particularly insistent in much contemporary art music.

Ms. Kaplan, 33, says pianists who don’t play much contemporary music have a different sense of rhythm than those who do. “When you’re playing Chopin or Brahms, rhythm is important in a different way than something totally driving, where you need to be exact. I’ve always enjoyed the mathematics of music,” she says. “Sometimes playing things very rhythmically intricate is a fun kind of puzzle.”

That has to be even more difficult when, as with Eighth Blackbird, you don’t have a conductor.

“We’re all sort of conducting,” Ms. Kaplan says. “We know everybody’s parts very well, we know the score. It’s not just knowing your part but knowing how your part fits into everybody else’s.”

The ensemble knows their parts so well that they often perform from memory, which allows them to connect that much better with their audience. It also lets them choreograph some performances, as with “Singing in the Dead of Night,” a collaboration between composers Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe and 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winner David Lang that the group will perform Tuesday at the Kennedy Center, with choreography by Susan Marshall.

The music remains the most important thing, of course, and Eighth Blackbird is committed to showcasing the works of living composers — and showcasing it well. Ms. Kaplan notes that in the concert hall, new music that gets just a few hours’ rehearsal is often paired with a Beethoven or Brahms symphony that the orchestra knows by heart. It can’t help but suffer in comparison. People who think they don’t like contemporary music may just have never heard a good performance of it.

“What we’re doing is not trying to make converts of everybody, but make the quality of what the repertoire we choose and how we perform incredibly high, so it has a chance of people liking it,” Ms. Kaplan says.

Eighth Blackbird perform their all-premiere program “The Only Moving Thing” at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater Tuesday night at 7:30.

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