Charging Up the Canon

Eighth Blackbird joins Eugene Symphony for a contemporary concerto

Imagine going to a rock concert where the whole show was created by people who are now dead. Some listeners might enjoy it as a nostalgia show or as a tribute concert  — but few would just call it rock.

That’s a problem faced by symphony orchestras around the country — and around the world — whose concert repertoire tends to have been written by the same dead white guys night after night and year after year.

The contemporary sextet Eighth Blackbird, which performs with Eugene Symphony Thursday, Nov. 15, at the Hult Center, is out to fix that problem one concert at a time, says musician Nathalie Joachim, its flutist and co-artistic director.

The Grammy-winning ensemble will play the Northwest premiere of On a Wire by Jennifer Higdon — an actual living, breathing composer — on a program that also includes Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 by Bach (who died in 1750), Six German Dances by Mozart (who died 1791) and Fancy Free by Bernstein (who died 1990).

One living composer out of four on the program ain’t bad by classical music standards.

“A big part of our mission is advocating for music by composers of today,” Joachim says. “That’s who we are.” Eugene Weekly spoke to her by phone in the run-up to tonight’s performance.

Eighth Blackbird, she says, takes a pass on performing traditional classical repertoire.

“People have asked us, ‘Could you also play a little Mozart? Or Beethoven?’ The ensemble from the very beginning just said ‘no’ to those opportunities,” Joachim says. “It’s not our passion and not our mission, and there are plenty of people to play that music.”

Just saying “no” hasn’t exactly hurt the ensemble’s career. Founded by six Oberlin Conservatory (Ohio) students in 1996, Eighth Blackbird has won four Grammy Awards. The Chicago Tribune called the sextet “one of the smartest, most dynamic contemporary classical ensembles on the planet.”

That kind of response has convinced Eighth Blackbird’s musicians that they just might be helping to rewrite the classical music canon for a new audience.

“The more convincingly you can perform this music, the more people will want to hear it,” Joachim says. “That was true of Beethoven and Brahms back in their day as well. The more you can make the music your own, the more convincing your performances are to your audiences.”

Higdon’s On a Wire, written by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer in 2010 specifically to be performed by Eighth Blackbird, is a percussive, high-spirited 25-minute piece in which the entire ensemble functions as a concerto soloist with the orchestra. (For a quick preview, check out the one-minute YouTube clip of former Eugene Symphony music director Marin Alsop conducting a 2010 rehearsal of the piece with the Cabrillo Festival Orchestra in Santa Cruz, California.)

The San Francisco Chronicle wrote of a Bay Area performance that Higdon’s “exuberantly beautiful and inventive group concerto … left the audience exhilarated and tickled.”

Assisted by a $15,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, Eighth Blackbird is in residency in Eugene for a week surrounding its performance with the symphony.

Activities have included a master class for University of Oregon music ensembles, lectures and discussion with music students at Springfield’s Academy of Arts and Academics, a dress rehearsal with Eugene Symphony attended by members of Eugene-Springfield Youth Orchestras; a lecture and demonstration for students at Elmira High School; and an open Eight Blackbird rehearsal in a non-traditional space.