Review: Lexington Philharmonic with eighth blackbirdeighth blackbird is stunning with Philharmonic, but Mozart is highlight

Contributing Culture CriticMarch 2, 2013 

The new-music ensemble eighth blackbird. Photo courtesy of David Lieberman Artists.

The Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra continued its eclectic season Friday at the Singletary Center for the Arts in a program combining familiar classics by Mozart and Beethoven with a highly unusual concerto, On the Wire, written for and performed by the acclaimed instrumental sextet called eighth blackbird.

Coming to Lexington fresh from winning its third Grammy Award, eighth blackbird took the stage in casual, if theatrical, street clothes, in contrast to the orchestra's formal tuxedos and gowns. The fascinating concerto by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Jennifer Higdon, in a joint commission with eight different orchestras, emphasizes eighth blackbird's strengths as an ensemble, composed of flutist Tim Munro, clarinetist Michael J. Maccaferri, violinist/violist Yvonne Lam, cellist Nicholas Photinos, pianist Lisa Kaplan and percussionist Matthew Duvall.

Although Higdon's concept was to present the small ensemble as a "group solo," she gave each of the players moments to shine as soloists in their own right. Two of these resonate most in my mind after the performance: Photinos, on cello, has an elegiac interlude toward the end of the concerto, which he played with lustrous tone, and percussionist Duvall's superb mallet work added a beautiful sonic glow to the whole piece.

I heard some audience members at intermission grousing that they had not cared for it, but I found On the Wire to be a joyous work full of ravishing and unusual sonorities, especially in the extended introduction during which all six members of eighth blackbird surrounded the piano, bowing, plucking, picking, stopping and tapping the strings on the interior.

The orchestra played with precision and energy, and the brass section was particularly tight in the surging climaxes.

Conductor and musical director Scott Terrell bookended the modern work with standard repertoire from the Classical era. The concert opened with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Divertimento in D Major, K. 136 for string orchestra; it brought forth from Terrell some of his most extroverted, buoyant conducting to date. He delineated Mozart's musical gestures and colors with utmost clarity, allowing the Philharmonic strings to demonstrate their technical virtuosity and secure musicianship. If truth be told, the Mozart was the highlight of the evening.

Ludwig van Beethoven's beloved Symphony No. 7 in A Major also received a good performance, especially by the woodwinds, but a few elements kept it from being all it could have been. Terrell took all the movements at very brisk paces, barely even pausing between the first movement and the so-called "Funeral March" second movement, which he led faster than I've ever heard it. The movement is marked allegretto, but Terrell's positively dancelike tempo sidelined the tragic pathos usually associated with this famous movement.

Terrell's breakneck speed in the presto third movement was fabulously exciting, and the interplay of instrumental textures was excellent. In the fast final movement, however, Terrell did not allow enough breadth at Beethoven's majestic climaxes.

Nevertheless, it is delightful to see Terrell so comfortable and assured on the podium and to hear the interesting programming choices with which he enlightens the musical culture of our city.

Tedrin Blair Lindsay is a musician, theater artist and lecturer at the University of Kentucky.

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