Think 'New' Music

eighth blackbird helps Texas Performing Arts change how we regard classical

eighth blackbird performing <i>Pierrot Lunaire</i>
eighth blackbird performing Pierrot Lunaire (Photo courtesy of eighth blackbird)

So the crowd is filing out of Dell Hall after the latest Austin Symphony concert, with most people still grinning from guest soloist Yefim Bronfman's virtuoso handling of the Brahms Piano Concerto, but I notice that the man and woman in front of me are sporting rather dour expressions. "It would be one thing if it were a new piece that people didn't know," I hear him grouse. "But for something as well-known as that!" He's referring to the Brahms and the fact that the audience was so stirred by Bronfman's playing in the Maestoso that it applauded at the end of the movement instead of waiting for the entire work to finish – a breach of concert-hall protocol, to be sure, but an honest one under the circumstances. To be still stewing about it 25 minutes later – 25 minutes more of a world-class performance! – shows more concern for dated formalities than for the music itself. I don't know, those two may be lovely people outside the concert hall, but that kind of hidebound attitude toward classical music just keeps the art form firmly entrenched in the 19th century and keeps 21st century audiences away.

Kathy Panoff
Kathy Panoff (Photo courtesy of Texas Performing Arts)

And that's exactly the attitude that Texas Performing Arts is trying to address with its classical music initiative. Funded by a $450,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that was matched by the University of Texas, UT College of Fine Arts, and TPA, the three-year program seeks to update the image of classical music from stony-faced white guys in powdered wigs writing for the blue-blood-and-lace-ruffle set to of-the-moment composers raised on rock and hip-hop using technology and fusing music with dance and theatre to speak to the jeans-wearing, iPhone-toting, wired-to-the-new crowd of today. To do this, it's zeroed in on new work, programming projects that blur boundaries of genre and discipline, or employ tech to transform our experience of a piece, and, naturally, commissioning compositions to be premiered here. It's bringing in more of those artists deeply involved with new music, both composing it and playing it, not just for an evening's performance, but for a week or more, to educate and enlighten our artists and audiences about the art form's relevance and vitality. And since antiquated ideas about classical music are still held widely throughout the community, the program has convened musicians, scholars, educators, arts administrators, civic leaders, and patrons to discuss how to integrate classical music more deeply into the cultural life of Austin.

The initiative is at the midway point of its three-season run, and each project to date has delivered a blow to classical music's petrified facade. BAM! John Malkovich strangles a soprano with a bra while a baroque orchestra looks on in Michael Sturminger's The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer. THWACK! The four years of the Civil War are fought through two dozen art songs performed by five singers playing 30 roles in composer Ricky Ian Gordon and lyricist Mark Campbell's Rappahannock County. BIFF! Wilco's Glenn Kotche conjures an Arctic landscape by whaling away on drums and cymbals for 50 minutes in John Luther Adams' Ilimaq. BANG! The Miró Quartet and Shanghai Quartet face off as Dionysian/Apollonian adversaries in Museon Polemos by Butler School of Music composer Dan Welcher. KA-POW! Hi-def footage from NASA provides a literal tour of the solar system as the UT Wind Ensemble plays Gustav Holst's The Planets. Now, all of them haven't all been warmly embraced – though it's worth noting that many of the classical works we revere today were hooted or hissed at when they debuted; just ask Brahms about that first Piano Concerto – but the point is, they are the signs of a living art form, active in the present and evolving with the times.

So Percussion performs on a Cap Metro MetroRail ride.
So Percussion performs on a Cap Metro MetroRail ride. (Photo courtesy of Josh Rasmussen)

You couldn't ask for a better embodiment of that spirit than eighth blackbird, the ensemble that arrives in town this week for a 10-day residency funded through TPA's classical music initiative. As is clear from the program for the sextet's first concert this visit, eighth blackbird revels in modern sounds. Philip Glass, György Ligeti, and Tom Johnson are the old guard here, with pieces from 1975-1985. The other four works – compositions by Andy Akiho, Derek Bermel, Nico Muhly, and Pulitzer winner Aaron Kernis – are from the last decade, with two from the past year. And the group isn't just playing new music; it's constantly commissioning it and recording it – efforts that have been honored with two Grammys in recent years. Even when the ensemble delves back into music of the past, as in the second concert it will play here, it finds work that still strikes the ear as "modern": songs by Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht and the groundbreaking cabaret opera Pierrot Lunaire, in which Arnold Schoenberg created the form of song-speech known as Sprechstimme. The latter also displays eighth blackbird's penchant for theatricality: Each member has memorized the score, so as to be able to take on roles in the drama. An encounter with eighth blackbird is a trip to the frontiers of classical music.

So as eighth blackbird is ready to fly in, how does Kathy Panoff, Texas Performing Arts director and architect of the classical music initiative, feel the program is faring halfway through? "I think it's moving very, very well," she says. "You know, change with big institutions and communities does not come quickly. I've learned over time that it comes by focusing consistently. It's like marketing; you can't do just one ad and expect it to work. You have to do multiple ads and multiple initiatives and multiple media. The arts is the same way. There's no one thing that's going to move your event or your ensemble or your mission out into the community. It's many things. And what Mellon has done is enable us to do things – especially the residencies and the commissioning and the classical music task force – that we wouldn't have been able to fund ourselves. The music commissions are a big deal. I've been able to bring other chamber musicians to town to work with our faculty and with the Miró Quartet. So I feel we're right where we need to go."

To support her viewpoint, Panoff points to the nontraditional concert that So Percussion – the resident ensemble during the initiative's first season – performed on a Cap Metro MetroRail car last fall. And she's particularly gratified by the success of The Planets: An HD Odyssey, which filled more than 2,000 seats in Bass Concert Hall last October. "And what I'm really proud of," she adds, "is that 1,000 of those were $10 student tickets." In addition to that much-desired contingent of younger patrons, she notes that the concert drew significant attendance from science departments – a university constituency not easy to attract to classical music events. And the fact that the work was played by the Wind Ensemble rather than a traditional symphony orchestra brought in band directors from across the state who are interested in the program for their ensembles. When a program like that migrates to other cities, as when new music that premieres here is then performed elsewhere, it extends the reach of TPA's initiative beyond the Austin city limits to other communities that may also start to rethink what classical music is or can be.

Back in Austin, though, does Panoff have any sense how long classical music will be treated as the redheaded stepchild in the live music capital? She refers to a post that she wrote for the classical music task force blog – – in which she noted efforts by local classical music organizations "to find ways to make classical music feel more accessible and relevant to the diverse community of citizens we have in Austin": performances in nontraditional spaces by Golden Hornet Project and Austin Classical Guitar Society; ASO's young composers competition; numerous collaborations with arts groups of different disciplines; and commissions of new music by almost every classical music organization in town. "We're farther along, perhaps, than we think," she concludes. "We're still in the margins of our community, just because of the sheer abundance of rock bands in every bar, but I think we're moving in the right direction."

eighth blackbird performs Shifted During Flight Monday, Jan. 28, and Pierrot Lunaire Monday, Feb. 4. Both concerts are at 8pm at the McCullough Theatre, 2375 Robert Dedman Dr., UT campus. A post-performance talkback with members of eighth blackbird follows both performances. For more information, call 477-6060 or visit

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Austin classical music, Texas Performing Arts, Kathy Panoff, eighth blackbird, The Infernal Comedy: Confessions of a Serial Killer, Rappahannock County, Ilimaq, Museon Polemos, Dan Welcher, So Percussion, UT Wind Ensemble

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