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The VSO and eighth blackbird Alight on New Piece by Pulitzer Winner

State of the Arts


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Two years ago, the Chicago-based sextet eighth blackbird invited the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts to co-commission a new work of classical music. Philadelphia-based composer Jennifer Higdon was writing a piece called On a Wire for the sextet — one of her favorite chamber groups — and orchestra. Flynn artistic director Arnie Malina invited the Vermont Symphony Orchestra to share the commission, and the two organizations didn’t hesitate to jump on board.

Then Higdon, 47, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

VSO executive director Alan Jordan declares of the co-commission, “From an artistic point of view, it was a no-brainer — even before the Pulitzer.” At the time, Higdon’s blue cathedral was “one of the most performed new pieces in the country,” Jordan recalls.

And eighth blackbird, which had already graced the Flynn in 2008, had long been turning heads. “They’re really the premier players of contemporary music in the United States,” avers David Ludwig, the VSO’s new-music advisor and resident composer.

Eighth blackbird and the VSO will perform On a Wire as part of the second concert in the orchestra’s Masterworks series, with principal guest conductor Anthony Princiotti. The piece promises to be engagingly inventive, given the tendencies of both Higdon and the lower-case sextet. The composer’s Pulitzer-winning Violin Concerto, featured knitting needles on cymbals. And eighth blackbird specialize in what are called extended techniques — unusual methods for obtaining new sounds, Malina explains, such as “sticking a cloth inside the piano, or when someone raps on a violin in a certain way.”

Ludwig says On a Wire begins with all six members of the chamber group bent over the open concert piano, playing its strings with bows Higdon made from fishing wire. “A lot of her music starts with sounds that you’ve just never heard before,” he adds. Ludwig, who spends three to five weeks a year in Burlington, serves on the faculty with Higdon at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.

Quirkiness aside, the piece will be decidedly accessible. Higdon’s direct line of descent from American populist composers such as Copland, Bernstein and Barber is evident in blue cathedral, available on a YouTube recording.

Jordan believes Higdon’s music is part of a new trend of accessibility in contemporary classical music. “Not too long ago, it was the kiss of death at the box office,” he says, referring to abstruse compositions by John Cage and Elliott Carter. “Now, I think composers are more savvy about writing pieces that are enjoyable to listen to.”

The VSO chose a program that bookends the 20-minute Higdon piece with equally accessible selections from the Romantic era: the German Carl Maria von Weber’s overture from his otherwise unperformed opera Euryanthe, and Finnish composer Jean Sibelius’ Symphony no. 2.

The Vermont performance of On a Wire will be the third time the composition is played. That’s because the Flynn-VSO team is one of eight co-commissioning entities across the country and beyond, each of which gets to mount the piece before it can be played elsewhere. The group includes initiating commissioner Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the well-respected Cleveland and Toronto Symphony orchestras. Such cost sharing is necessary, according to Malina, who says good composers garner, “say, $35,000” for a new work. (The Vermont team contributed $7500 for this one.)

For Ludwig, eighth blackbird’s appearance with the VSO is as prestigious as Higdon’s commission. “They play with so much ardor that people who know nothing about classical music immediately take to them,” he promises.