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“Brainy, hip, fearsomely talented young musicians” is not the type of description one would expect for a chamber music ensemble.

Yet the Chicago Sun-Times is far from alone in its enthusiastic praise of eighth blackbird, which will perform 8 p.m. tonight at the Williams Center for the Arts. Tickets cost $18 and may be purchased by calling the box office at 610-330-5009.

The program encompasses an eclectic range of styles and idioms by five of the most compelling composers of our era: Jennifer Higdon’s “Zaka,” George Perle’s “Critical Moments,” Frederic Rzewski’s “Les Moutons de Panurge,” Kaija Saariaho’s “Cendres,” and David Gordon’s “Dramamine.” The works by Higdon, Gordon, and Perle, a Pulitzer Prize winner, were written for eighth blackbird.

“The burgeoning career of this brilliant young contemporary-music sextet is one of the most heartening musical developments of recent years,” says the San Francisco Chronicle, and Detroit Free Press praises the ensemble’s “precision, blend, and convictionzealously reinventing the future.” Notes The Washington Post, “Performances of contemporary music are generally not easy for either audience or performer, but by infusing them with pop music and theatrical practices, eighth blackbird rises to the challenge every time.”

Regarded as one of the premier new music groups in the world, eighth blackbird’s concert kicks off Lafayette’s Chamber Music Series, which will proceed with pianist Marc-André Hamelin in the annual Dr. Aaron W. Litwak Concert, Wednesday, Oct. 6; the Imani Winds quartet, Wednesday, Nov. 3; Orpheus Chamber Orchestra with pianist Jonathan Biss, Sunday, Feb. 6; Alexander String Quartet, Tuesday, March 8, and Orpheus with clarinetist David Singer, Thursday, April 7. All concerts begin at 8 p.m. with the exception of the Feb. 6 performance, which starts at 3 p.m. A series subscription costs $99, a savings of $29 compared to the total cost of the six individual concerts. Call the box office to order or learn more.

With a name inspired by the Wallace Stevens poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” eighth blackbird is comprised of Molly Alicia Barth, flutes; Michael J. Maccaferri, clarinets; Matt Albert, violin and viola; Nicholas Photinos, cello; Matthew Duvall, percussion; and Lisa Kaplan, piano.

The group has established a reputation for provocative and engaging performances. Winners of the Naumburg Chamber Music Award and the Concert Artists Guild International Competition, where it was the first contemporary ensemble to win first prize, eighth blackbird is also a three-time recipient of the CMA/ASCAP Award for Adventurous Programming. Other awards include top prizes at the Fischoff and Coleman National Chamber Music Competitions. The group has been featured on CBS’ “Sunday Morning” and was the subject of a profile in The New York Times. The ensemble is in residence at the University of Richmond in Virginia and the University of Chicago.

The 2003-04 season included three performance debuts: a European debut in Kraków, Poland; a Canadian debut in Vancouver; and a Carnegie Hall debut, performing David Schober’s concerto for sextet and orchestra, “Split Horizon,” with the American Composers Orchestra. Other highlights included performances throughout the Midwest, East Coast, California, and New Mexico. In recent seasons the sextet has performed in South Korea, Mexico, and throughout the United States, including concerts at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall, Columbia’s Miller Theater, the 92nd Street Y, the Metropolitan Museum, the Kennedy Center, the Library of Congress, the Cleveland Museum of Art, and the La Jolla Chamber Music Society. Eighth blackbird has appeared several times at the Norfolk Chamber Music Festival and Cincinnati’s Music X, and has also appeared at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival, the Caramoor International Music Festival, the Chautauqua Music Festival and the Great Lakes Chamber Music Festival.

Since its founding in 1996, eighth blackbird has been active in commissioning new works from eminent composers — most notably Frederic Rzewski and George Perle — as well as ground-breaking works from Jennifer Higdon, Derek Bermel, David Schober, Daniel Kellogg, Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez, and the Minimum Security Composers Collective. The group was the recipient of the first BMI/Boudleaux-Bryant Fund Commission and has received grants from CMA, Meet the Composer, and the Greenwall Foundation.

The ensemble recently signed a three-record agreement with Cedille Records. Repertoire for the first release, titled Thirteen Ways and released in April 2003, included works by Joan Tower, George Perle, David Schober, and Thomas Albert. A second CD, which includes Daniel Kellogg’s “Divinum Mysterium” and George Crumb’s “Vox Balaenae,” was released this year, and the third disc, featuring the music of Frederic Rzewski, will follow in April 2005. Round Nut Tool, eighth blackbird’s debut CD, was self-released in 1999.

Eighth blackbird is active in teaching young artists about contemporary music and has taught master classes and conducted outreach activities throughout the country, including the Aspen Music School System (grades K-12), the La Jolla Chamber Music Series, the Candlelight Concert Series, and Hancher Auditorium at the University of Iowa.

The members of eighth blackbird hold degrees in music performance from Oberlin Conservatory, the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory, and Northwestern University.

The nationally recognized Performance Series at Lafayette attracts more than 10,000 people each season. It has been cited for performing excellence by the National Endowment for the Arts, National Dance Project, Chamber Music America, Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund, Pennsylvania Arts and Humanities Councils, and Association of Performing Arts Presenters.

The 2004-05 Performance Series at Lafayette is supported in part by gifts from Friends of the Williams Center for the Arts; by the F.M. Kirby Foundation; by provisions of the Alan and Wendy Pesky Artist-in-Residence Program, J. Mahlon and Grace Buck Foundation, and Croasdale Fund; and by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

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