vso masterworks concert #2: on a wire

eighth blackbird

“This should be fun.”

Those words came from the gentleman sitting behind me at last night’s Vermont Symphony Orchestra Masterworks concert, in the break between the concert opener (Carl Maria von Weber’s dutifully dramatic overture Euryanthe) and the second piece, Jennifer Higdon’s newly commissioned work On a Wire. He was seeing the same thing I was: a piano being wheeled out on stage, risers being set up around it, and a variety of instrument stands arrayed along the entire length of the stage in front of the orchestra. I smiled, convinced he would be right.

When I spoke with Jennifer Higdon last week we talked a lot about the “extended techniques” employed in the new work, a concerto for sextet (the contemporary music ensemble eighth blackbird) and orchestra (last night, the VSO). She mentioned that the work’s structure was partly inspired by the ensemble itself, and its high comfort level for using their instruments in alternative ways to produce unusual sounds and effects.

And so the concerto began (and ended), with the piano – bowed piano, with each of the six members of eighth blackbird using mallets and strings and finger plucking on the prepared piano wiring to elicit effects that ranged from ethereal to eerie, and whimsically percussive. (In our interview Jennifer mentioned that the piece started with all six of the eighth blackbird members “inside the piano” – true enough!) One of the interesting things about bowed piano technique is that it expands the range of the piano’s voice from its strictly percussive nature to include more nuanced sounds like those more commonly associated with string instruments.

From its unusual opening, the concerto moved into a more traditional concerto grosso form with equal doses of tension and interplay between the smaller ensemble of six players and the larger orchestra. The movements progressed continuously, marked by mood and tempo changed rather than real breaks in the music. Higdon promised a vibrant and rhythmic experience, and the piece delivered. Each of the eighth blackbird members had solo opportunities, revealing the individual strengths that support their collective might. For the most part the sonically complex and technically difficult nuances of On a Wire were navigated proficiently, although the coordination of the slower, dreamlike middle section seemed to drift at one point and create a passing disjunct between eighth blackbird and the orchestra. Under-rehearsal is a likelier explanation than intrinsic structural problems with the piece itself. The concerto concluded with all of the individual instrumental lines converging, a perfectly coordinated musical clock ending precisely – with a visceral “wow!” from the audience. A great success.

On a Wire was jointly commissioned by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, the Akron Symphony, the Cincinnati Symphony, the Cabrilo Festival, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the West Michigan Symphony, and Vermont’s own Flynn Center for the Arts and the Vermont Symphony Orchestra. It will be released by eighth blackbird and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra on February 22nd, as the debut release on the ASO’s own label. And while I’m sure I will enjoy the recording there is nothing like seeing creativity like this enacted live on stage! Congratulations are in order for everyone, from those who commissioned the work to Jennfer for writing it and the performers who breathed life into it. In particular conductor Anthony Princiotti for having players behind AND in front of him, and keeping everything moving together in the right musical balance. No easy feat.

The VSO has several holiday concerts and the annual Farmer’s Night concert coming up, and the next Masterworks series concert will be on Saturday, January 22nd.

See also:

eighth blackbird’s website

NPR’s feature on the Bowed Piano Ensemble

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