Adventurous Music-Making – Eighth Blackbird at World Café Live

Donald enjoys an adventurous program of new music with the unconventional chamber sextet, Eighth Blackbird, part of the LiveConnections concert series. – Artblog editor

There’s simply no music more immediate and intimate than chamber music. But what happens when you combine the various streams of this genre–the piano trio, woodwind quintet, and the percussion quartet? That’s where Eighth Blackbird enters the picture. Combining the instruments of violin, viola, cello, piano, flute, clarinet, and percussion, Eighth Blackbird is a chamber ensemble in the form of a sextet. In conjunction with the arts education non-proft LiveConnections, Eighth Blackbird presented a program of recent works and a world premiere on June 8 at World Café Live.


Music and activism

The Grammy award-winning, Chicago-based group–comprised of Nathalie Joachim, flutes; Michael J. Maccaferri, clarinets; Yvonne Lam, violin and viola; Nicholas Photinos, cello; Matthew Duvall, percussion; and Lisa Kaplan, piano–has dedicated itself to a vibrant mission in which they “move music forward through innovative performance, advocacy for new music by living composers, and a legacy of guiding an emerging generation of musicians [by extending] beyond recording and touring to curation and education.”


The ensemble recently wrapped up a three-year residency at Philadelphia’s esteemed Curtis Institute of Music, and currently holds Ensemble-in-Residence positions at the University of Richmond and the University of Chicago. Also, during this past season Eighth Blackbird presented a residency at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, “featuring open rehearsals, an interactive gallery installation, performances, and public talks.”

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Pushing the musical envelope

“Doublespeak” brought the concert to an airy and rather freewheeling start. This Nico Muhly composition was written for Phillip Glass’ 75th birthday. The familiar eccentricities of Glass’ minimalist composing style were evident throughout the piece in the rapid-fire, staccato plucking of strings, and bipolar-like switches between anxious swiftness and broodiness.


“Aware” is a solo piece for flute performed by new member Nathalie Joachim. Joachim was performing at World Café Live for LiveConnections a year ago when it was announced that she would be joining Eighth Blackbird. Joachim was backed by a hypnotic beat-driven track from a computer, which sometimes distracted us from her beautifully pure playing. It was only when the beat sped up a bit more that the piece became more satisfying. The electronic piece also had pre-recorded backing vocals by Joachim. The flautist flipped back and forth between playing and singing a few lines.

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“Alpha,” a world premiere cello and percussion duet, which also appears on Nicholas Photinos’ upcoming solo album, was as intense as Modest Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain”–but without the strong melodic underpinnings that make Mussorgsky’s piece so compelling. “Alpha” was chock full of the sound of fingers sliding up and down the cello’s spine and a scratched up, distorted sound that almost made your ears want to bleed. As he approached the end of the piece, Photinos entertainingly rose up from playing the cello and began getting in on the percussion action by banging on the bass drum. It was a thrilling listen even if the piece didn’t have much to display melodically.


This concert showed exactly what Eighth Blackbird excels at, which is a drive to perform music that pushes the envelope creatively while still being open for audience members ready to dive into unchartered territory.

A word about LiveConnections

The greatest discovery for me, however, was the breadth of offerings that LiveConnections has here in Philadelphia. LiveConnections was established in 2008 by a team of artists, educators, and entrepreneurs as a response to cuts to music education in Philadelphia public schools. The organization conducts educational programs, as well as in-school and after-school residencies. In addition, their collaborative concert series at World Café Live aims to cross musical boundaries and find new paths.

With Eighth Blackbird closing out the LiveConnections season, we can now look to the 2016-17 season. One concert to watch for in the upcoming season is bassist John Patitucci and the Daedalus Quartet’s performance next April. In the meantime, Eighth Blackbird’s concert not only left the audience anticipating their next bold, musical statement, but also LiveConnections’ exciting and much-needed programming.

See here for more information on Eighth Blackbird and World Café Live.