Chicago ensemble eighth blackbird helps Curtis music students with real-world challenges

Curtis Institute student Tomasz Kowalczyk (left) gets instruction from Matthew Duvall of eighth blackbird.

The stereotypical Curtis Institute of Music professor heroically survived the Russian Revolution and continues teaching proper Tchaikovsky performance while smoking Gauloises at the age of 103. At least in years past.

These days, the six members of the cutting-edge Chicago ensemble eighth blackbird are barely distinguishable from the students during their periodic residencies here. Their presence augments the traditional Curtis landscape, yielding concerts of new music that make students do it the hard way: from memory and without a conductor.

"They're going out and becoming the leaders of tomorrow's music world, whether as soloists or administrators," says blackbird flutist Tim Munro, "and we want to bring to them a greater sense of engagement . . . to give them more of a 21st-century notion of what it means to be a musician."

Evidence of that will be apparent Friday at Field Concert Hall, when eighth blackbird plays one of the 100 or so pieces it has commissioned - David Lang's these broken wings - in a concert that includes student groups they have coached.

"The field is changing, not dying, but turning into something different," says faculty composer David Ludwig, who encouraged the sextet's three-year residency but is careful to say that Curtis' traditional values are being preserved.

In addition to dealing with ever-evolving modern music, eighth blackbird's members talk a lot about something young musicians aren't often asked to consider: a self-constructed career. Cinderella career scenarios still happen; such recent graduates as Lang Lang and Yuja Wang were indeed swept up by the music industry with glamorous concerts and prestigious recording agreements. But, increasingly, musicians must find their own way.

If anybody has done that, it's eighth blackbird. This rich, uncommon mixture of strings, winds, keyboard, and percussion - with a lowercase name taken from Wallace Stevens' poem "13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" ("I know noble accents / And lucid, inescapable rhythms") - might have seemed hard to imagine when it formed in the '90s.

Some 16 years later, the group has created a body of work that includes major concertos by the likes of Jennifer Higdon. But unlike the trailblazing Kronos Quartet, which formed in the 1980s and leads mostly by example, blackbird commits large blocks of time to addressing the next generation face to face, says Ludwig.

In fact, a career forum held by the blackbirds at Curtis three years ago made students who thought they were headed for the usual rank-and-file orchestra jobs think about new possibilities, like self-publishing recordings and raising money for them through Or playing performances in all manner of untraditional venues. And is it any coincidence the blackbird-like ensemble39 formed at Curtis three years ago? That group will play much of Friday's concert, including its calling card, Prokofiev's Quintet Op. 39.

But the centerpiece of the blackbird residency isn't new at all: Schoenberg's 1912 Pierrot Lunaire. An explosive study in madness dramatized by a pungent atonal score, the piece embodies much of what music was to become over the next century.

Daunting under any circumstances, Pierrot also will be played by students April 15 at Curtis' Field Concert Hall, April 16 at the Barnes Foundation, and later on tour in South Korea - and by memory, without a conductor to hold together the careering music.

Rehearsals have been slightly edgy.

"I could see them [the students] becoming uncomfortable," says blackbird violinist Yvonne Lam, a 2005 Curtis graduate. "It's having them exercise the ownership and responsibility. But it's also freedom, and when they realize that, they want more."

"They engage with each other in a really intense way," says Munro, "and will be able to engage with the audience in a more intense way as well."

If there's a blackbird FAQ in the Pierrot coaching sessions, it's "Where's the character?" as though the students have roles in a play.

"They really consider every single detail," says violinist Zoë Martin-Doike, 23, "and it can completely change the music, just by changing the articulation. You can come up with a much more meaningful performance."

Happily, so much study doesn't render the music demsytified. "I still think it's a very strange piece," she says.

Though the hallmark of the current generation of Curtis students is technical proficiency, the enemy is superficiality. "They do a bajillion things around here - because they can," says Munro. "We're focusing more on giving more time to a project."

And not just modern works. Coaching traditional Brahms and Schumann repertoire is not, for eighth blackbird, much different. "I find myself saying exactly the same things," says clarinetist Michael Maccaferri. "It's about finding the characters."


Contact David Patrick Stearns at