Eighth Blackbird
15 May 2018
Tuneful TravelTuneful Travel

Eighth Blackbird Swoops into Des Moines

Eighth Blackbird, a four-time-Grammy-winning group based in Chicago, performed in Des Moines’ Sheslow Auditorium on Saturday, May 12, 2018 as the final concert in the Civic Music Association‘s 94th season. The six musicians played contemporary and experimental compositions, and entertained the audience with dissonance and harmony as well as fresh new ways to coax sounds from traditional instruments.

The group was formed in 1996 by six Oberlin Conservatory graduates. The ensemble has produced eight recordings and been awarded four Grammies for Best Small Ensemble/Chamber Music Performance. The group serves as Ensemble-in-Residence at the University of Richmond, and in 2017 it launched the Blackbird Creative Laboratory, a tuition-free two-week workshop and performance festival in Ojai, California.

All of these activities further the ensemble’s stated mission of

“moving music forward through innovative performance, advocating for new music by living composers, and creating a legacy of guiding an emerging generation of musicians.”

The current members of Eighth Blackbird are:

Nathalie Joachim–flutes (alto, soprano, piccolo)

Michael Maccaferri–clarinets (B-flat and bass clarinet)

Yvonne Lam–viola and violin

Nick Photinos–cello

Matthew Duvall–percussion

Lisa Kaplan–piano

Concert Program

The empty stage was intriguing with its large array of percussion instruments. I also noted that all of the musicians used tablets to display their music (no paper scores to fall to the ground!). Sheslow Auditorium, on the Drake University campus, has an intimate feel because the stage is so close to the audience. It also seems to have great resonance which seems to be especially important for acoustic performances such as this one.

Empty stage before Eighth Blackbird's performance
Empty stage before Eighth Blackbird’s performance


Bryce Dessner: Suite from Murder Ballades (2013, revised 2015)

Ornie Wise-Young Emily

Wave the Sea-Brushy Fork

The flutist Nathalie Joachim explained that the group commissioned this suite and the composer keeps adding to it. He bases these works on the European tradition of setting grisly homicides to song, and these “murder ballads” came to America and were sung and added to.

Omie Wise from Eighth Blackbird on Vimeo.


I like how this next piece, as shown below from the group’s website, starts out with alto flute:

Wave the Sea – Brushy Fork from Eighth Blackbird on Vimeo.


Dan Trueman: Suite from Olagon: A Cantata in Doublespeak (2017)

Stirrings I

Marbhan’s Shadow

Ululations II

Reeling Reel

Dan Trueman is a fiddler as well as a composer, and often performs with the group. These selections had an Irish feel.


Ned McGowan: The Garden of Iniquitous Creatures (2016)

The composer, also a flutist, wrote that this piece was inspired by the Swedish heavy metal band Meshuggah. The percussionist, Matthew Duvall, was featured in this crazy-sounding selection.


David Lang: wed from memory pieces (1992), arr. Kaplan/Duvall

This was originally written for solo piano, and the pianist and percussionist arranged it to include percussion. The composer wrote these “memory pieces” in remembrance of his friends that had passed away. I enjoyed this unusual duet.


Ted Hearne: By-By Huey (2015)

Robert Honstein: Pulse from Conduit (2015)

Timo Andres: Checkered Shade (2015)

The group performed these last three selections without a break. In several of them, members moved around the stage or turned to face the rear wall.


What a fantastic performance this was!¬† I knew that this music was very technically challenging especially with the constantly changing rhythms. If you’d like to hear more from this group, visit their website and watch more of their videos, or sample and purchase one of more albums.

The Civic Music Association’s 2018-2019 season will feature some terrific groups including Ramsey Lewis & Ann Hampton Callaway, and Emanual Ax. Visit the CMA website to learn how to purchase season tickets or smaller ticket packages.

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