When eighth blackbird joins the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra onstage Friday at the Singletary Center for the Arts, the contemporary music ensemble from Chicago will be performing the seemingly impossible: a concerto for a group.
"It should be impossible to write a concerto for six players and orchestra," says blackbird flutist Timothy Munro. "You've got too many competing egos, too many competing sounds, you've got issues of balance — it should be a disaster."
But it hasn't been.
Composer Jennifer Higdon's On a Wire was a co-commission of nine entities including the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra that premiered in 2010.
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Reviewing the world premiere, Atlanta Journal-Constitution critic Pierre Ruhe wrote that On a Wire — "showy, exuberant, beautifully crafted — aroused so many of the audience's hot spots across its 22 minutes that the crowd was prepared to cheer before it was over."
That's something else that might have been regarded as impossible 10 to 20 years earlier: classical concert audiences cheering for new music. With a few exceptions, new music was largely ignored in favor of the time-honored classics by Beethoven and the like. But in the 21st century, audiences have warmed to new sounds, particularly from groups like eighth blackbird, a two-time Grammy-winning contemporary music star.
"There is definitely still a sense that new music is viewed with great skepticism by the classical music audience," Munro says. "But we're getting a huge influx of audiences from other music areas. As new music becomes anything, anything goes, we have new audiences from jazz, from indie rock and from different traditions of world music."
In addition to playing their instruments at a virtuosic level, eighth blackbird has developed a reputation for presenting highly theatrical performances.
On a Wire will find the six players moving around the stage and returning regularly to the piano, where the musicians blow on and pluck, strike and manipulate the strings inside with credit cards and guitar picks to turn it "into a mini orchestra," Munro says.
The pianos used for the concerts are generally owned by the venues. Munro says some house managers have objected to the manipulation of the instruments.
"But Jennifer had her Steinway technician observe her prepare the piano and play all of the techniques," Munro says. "He signed a letter that said it would do less damage to the piano than Lang Lang," the Chinese piano superstar known for his flamboyant pounding (he is scheduled to play the Singletary Center next year).
Eighth blackbird and Higdon are all about new music in the 21st century, but the group hardly eschews the time-honored classics. Munro is fond of Friday's overall Philharmonic program, which pairs On a Wire with Beethoven's Symphony No. 7, which he says have rhythmic and structural similarities.
"The pairing is really nice between the Beethoven and Jennifer's piece because the two pieces really complement each other nicely," Munro says.
That might be a fun similarity to notice, but a big part of the appeal for On a Wire is much more visceral.
"Listeners don't have to think too hard about this piece," Munro says. "It's not a piece that wants deep technical analysis. It wants to be enjoyed. It wants audiences to strap themselves in and come along for the ride. ... One of the things Jennifer intended with the title On a Wire is that we would sort of be like acrobats on a wire, with no net.
"So there's a thrilling danger and virtuosity to this piece that will bring audiences along."
IF YOU GO
What: The contemporary ensemble performs Jennifer Higdon's On a Wire with conductor Scott Terrell and the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra. Also on the program is Ludwig Van Beethoven's Symphony No. 7.
When: 7:30 p.m. March 1
Where: Singletary Center for Arts, 405 W. Short St.
Tickets: $25-$60. Available at Philharmonic offices, ArtsPlace, 161 N. Mill St., fourth floor; by calling (859) 233-4226 or at Lexphil.org.
IF YOU GO
What: Lexington Philharmonic music director Scott Terrell and members of eighth blackbird discuss the group’s musical inspirations.
When: 7 p.m. Feb. 28
Where: Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St.
Tickets: $15. Available at Philharmonic offices, ArtsPlace, 161 N. Mill St., fourth floor; by calling (859) 233-4226 or at Lexphil.org.