The group – six fearless musicians equipped with probing minds and irreverent attitudes – bear an intriguing name: Eighth Blackbird. The poetic obscurity emanates from Wallace Stevens’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird: “I know noble accents / And lucid, inescapable rhythms; / But I know, too, / That the blackbird is involved / In what I know”.
It all came together on Monday at the lower depths of Carnegie Hall. The heroes on duty, playing flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, percussion and variations thereof, proved that musical modernism can thrive without dour pretension.
The impeccably balanced, usefully annotated programme began with Still Life with Avalanche (2008), an elegiac essay by Missy Mazzoli. Amid intricate splashes and ripples supported by kaleidoscopic drones, the piece depicts joy and loss in terms of orderly chaos. Pierre Boulez’s Dérive I (1984) revealed an allied interest in the driving force of the trill, also a unique fusion of analytical acuity and expressive attraction. Philippe Hurel’s ...à mesure (1996) offered an indulgent celebration of variegated chatter. Spanning violence and serenity, it started with a wild scramble and ended with a reflective sigh. In progressive composition everything, of course, is relative.
The post-interval fare included Catch, Op. 4, a playful, deceptively complex, quasi-theatrical exercise written by Thomas Adès in 1991. A precocious 19-year-old at the time, he cast a wandering clarinetist as pathetic “pig in the middle”, spurned by an instrumental trio of mock antagonists. Stephen Hartke’s Meanwhile (2007) applied piquant poise and mock-Asian nuances to what he called “imaginary puppet plays”. Properly inspired, the sextet added their own crafty choreography. The youthful audience cheered Philip Glass’s Music in Similar Motion (1969), unfazed by its static harmony, dull dynamic and numbing repetition. These old ears, and whatever resides between them, found the endurance contest of minimal interest.
No matter. The blackbirds, celebrating their 15th season, performed this, like everything else, with bracing insight and nonchalant virtuosity. Clearly, they know how to handle noble accents and lucid, inescapable rhythms.