PHOTOS: rehearsing with eighth blackbird

We sat in with members of Grammy-winning eighth blackbird while they rehearsed inside the University of Richmond’s Camp Concert Hall.

Update #1 — March 22, 2013; 6:30 AM

We sat in with members of Grammy-winning eighth blackbird (see below) while they rehearsed inside the University of Richmond’s Camp Concert Hall.

If you missed their performances this week, listen to them here.

Photos by Erin Soorenko

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Original — March 18, 2013

Adele, the Black Keys, Skrillex, Jay-Z. Those were a few notable winners at last month’s 55th annual Grammy Awards.

But two less-publicized Grammys went to a group of musicians with local ties: eighth blackbird.1

“You feel, ‘This is what it’s like to be a rockstar,'” said Lisa Kaplan, founder and pianist for the sextet, about the wins. “It gives you this recognition because it’s something [the Grammys] that everybody knows.”

The ensemble formed in 1996 when members, then students at Oberlin College and Conservatory, were brought together by conductor Timothy Weiss.

“We really enjoyed playing together on our own,” Kaplan said. The members continued collaborating, and would become one of the country’s best contemporary ensembles.

But Kaplan said when the members were students in the late 1990s, many considered classical music the touchstone for success. “It wasn’t the norm for people to be developing their own speciality.”

But she said in the last decade there’s been a “huge surge in contemporary music ensembles.” Members of eighth blackbird are among the trailblazers.

Named after the eighth stanza of Wallace Stevens’s poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,”2 eighth blackbird plays traditional instruments in an untraditional way.

Not only do members forego fancy dresses and bow ties during performances, but they talk to their audience between songs — seldom found in traditional orchestral performances.

This contemporary approach in presentation also applies to the ensemble’s choice of music.

“There is a lot of diversity in the types of music we’re playing,” Kaplan said. Bach and Mozart aren’t in their typical repertoire. “We’re playing music being composed now,” like composers Steve Reich, Paul Moravec, Frederic Rzewski, and others.

“I feel its something that they’re not used to,” Kaplan said about those more accustomed to the traditional prim and properness of orchestral performances. But an increasing number of people appreciate those, like eighth blackbird, who do something a bit different.

“In the last 10 years, there’s been a trend toward getting out of those traditional spaces,” Kaplan said.

Since 2004, eighth blackbird has been helping local musicians break free of those traditional spaces as the ensemble-in-residence at the University of Richmond. Not only does eighth blackbird perform concerts throughout the year, but members instruct and mentor students.

“It’s really great,” Kaplan said about their work.

She said the city has responded to eighth blackbird’s musical performances.

“I really feel like we’ve developed a nice core audience in Richmond.”

That audience will have another chance to see eighth blackbird when the ensemble performs with Nico Muhly at the Camp Concert Hall at the University of Richmond on Wednesday, March 20th at 7:30 PM. Tickets are $17 – $20 (free for UR students).

The ensemble will then perform a free concert at the Camp Concert Hall on Thursday, March 21st at 7:30 PM.

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  1. Deliberately spelled in lowercase. 
  2. “I know noble accents / And lucid, inescapable rhythms; / But I know, too, / That the blackbird is involved / In what I know.” 
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Nathan Cushing

Nathan Cushing is a writer, journalist, and RVANews Editor.

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