Chicago Tribune

Nico Muhly and Bryce Dessner join blackbirds for a new music romp at MCA

John von Rhein,May 1, 2013

When people think of the cultural cross-pollination that goes on between Chicago and New York, interchanges in theater and the visual arts are what usually spring to mind. But exchanges among contemporary classical music performers seem to be taking place with increasing frequency, to the great benefit of audiences as well as the musicians themselves in both cities.

On Tuesday night at the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Edlis Neeson Theater, the Chicago new music sextet eighth blackbird laid out the welcome mat for guest artists Nico Muhly and Bryce Dessner, New York-based composer performers who toggle between the worlds of classical and rock, and are close colleagues of the blackbirds.

The program of minimalist and post-minimalist fare, which continues MCA Stage’s spring focus on new music, was, as Lisa Kaplan, eighth blackbird’s pianist, described, “like if you have a family dinner and you bring along a friend.” (Or two.) As with nearly everything the blackbirds present, the concert was thoughtfully planned and executed with a combination of precision and abandon that drew the capacity audience into each score.

Muhly and Dessner each was represented by one work, and each took part in several pieces.

Muhly’s “Doublespeak” (2012), written for eighth blackbird, represents an homage to minimalist guru Philip Glass, whose musical spirit hovered over the entire program. Glass-style pulsing rhythms and repetitive phrases drive the piece and are varied in such a way as to tickle the ear with eruptive changes of instrumental color and musical gesture.

Dessner, who plays guitar in the indie rock band the National, contributed “Murder Ballades” (2013), an MCA co-commission that was receiving its U.S. premiere. Seven American folk songs based on grisly homicides – three are original to Dessner – are dressed in alluring instrumental hues and jumpy rhythms that intensify the vernacular flavor. In all, great fun.

So, for that matter, was Kaplan’s “whirligig” (2013), a delectable little three-movement piece for piano four hands the pianist wrote for her and Muhly to play at this concert. Their arms entangling like those of pianistic octopi, the performers concluded with a driving, boogie-woogie-style section punctuated by tone clusters produced by their slamming the keyboard with their forearms.

The concert furthered eighth blackbird’s collaboration with Bang on a Can composer David Lang, whose chamber opera “The Whisper Opera” is to have its world premiere by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) in five performances beginning May 30 at the MCA.

Two songs from Lang’s 2012 cycle “death speaks” (the album of the same name was released this week) echoed the somber, unsettling mood of the composer’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “little match girl passion.” Whereas the latter work meditates on the J.S. Bach Passions, the newer piece carries Franz Schubert’s personification of death in his songs a step further, weaving simple, haunting accompaniments around the pure, plaintive tones of singer Shara Worden. Her vocalism proved nothing short of astonishing, precisely because it didn’t try to astonish.

Less compelling was Lang’s “how to pray” (2002-13), for which Muhly and Dessner added electric organ and electric guitar to the weighty instrumental tread surrounding cellist Nicholas Photinos’ dourly repetitive prayer. Although the piece lasted no more than about 12 minutes, it grew tiresome early on.

Not so the program’s bookends, Tristan Perich’s unpronounceable “qsqsqsqsqqqqqqqqq” (2009) and Steven Mackey’s “Lonely Motel” (2008-12).

The Perich piece bathes Glassian repetitive patterns in a kind of sonic soda pop of three brightly tinkling toy pianos edged with electronica.

Its upbeat mood stood in stark contrast to “Lonely Motel,” the final, wordless song of “Slide,” Mackey’s musical theater song cycle, which eighth blackbird performed complete in Chicago in 2010 and which won a Grammy award two years later. With Dessner striking forlorn chords on his guitar and Muhly thumping a bass drum, the excerpt worked surprisingly well in isolation, mirroring “Slide’s” overall sense of loss, isolation and decay. Nobody missed the spoken parts.

Representing Glass – at 76, “the granddaddy of this entire concert,” as blackbird flutist Tim Munro called the composer – was his early “Two Pages” (1968), whose insistent reiterations enlisted all eight musicians. Their ability to synchronize in absolute lockstep was, in a word, amazing.