Duke Performances and the Durham Chamber Arts Society presented eighth blackbird,* a top-flight contemporary art ensemble, in works by established and emerging artists Brett Dean, Bryce Dessner, Tom Johnson, Steven Mackey, and Richard Reed Parry. They also paid homage to the 20th-century giant György Ligeti (1923-2006). The concert took place on the east campus of Duke University in the newly renovated Baldwin Auditorium.

The Chamber Arts series’ George Gopen introduced the ensemble and recited the poetry of their namesake, which won him a hearty applause. The talented and founding member of the ensemble Lisa Kaplan (piano) greeted the audience as well. She described a program change: combining the Ligeti Études (1985-94, arr. Kaplan, Munro) with Tom Johnson’s Counting Duets (1982). I was skeptical.

Tom Johnson (b.1939) has been described as an “American minimalist” who composes music with simple mathematical processes, not unlike algorithmic composers of the computer generation. Counting Duets (1982) might appear mundane; but turning it into theatre and dance, eighth blackbird members made it dazzle. Alternating sections of Johnson’s with each of the four Études worked with unexpected appeal. From the whimsy of the school yard counting contest, to the hypnotic “Automne à Varsoie” (Autumn in Warsaw, arr. Tim Munro) the ensemble made it work. I loved it.

Bryce Dessner’s Murder Ballades (2013) commissioned by eight blackbird and Lunapark, is composed in sections (we heard four of the seven), each based on a violent story, two of which were penned by the composer. Open fifths and modal passages give the piece a distinctively American flavor, but layers and percussion put distance between this contemporary work and the folk influence. The ensemble performed with flair and commitment making a very good piece accessible. I will enjoy hearing it in its entirety.

A second pairing described by Tim Munro (flutes) as ” two nocturnes” or slow introduction and frightening nightmare, was performed on the second half. Richard Reed Parry’s “Duo for Heart and Breath” (2012) features piano and violin in beautiful dream-like partnership. A stethoscope seemed unnecessary, more like a prop, but the performance was lovely; Kaplan and Lam played with beautiful tone. Brett Dean’s mind-blowing sextet, Old Kings in Exile (2011) was compelling.

They closed with Steven Mackey’s Suite: Slide (2008/12) from his musical theater song cycle (words by Rinde Eckert). Also commissioned and performed by eighth blackbird, Mackey’s work is complex, flippant, colorful and demanding (for both players and listeners). In addition to their traditional parts, players share responsibility with percussion: striking little bells, hitting the huge bass drum, and blowing across the top of a wine bottle. There were duets and trios, lots of extended performance technique and abrupt changes in texture. There were also moments of tenderness, places of repose, but without resolution, the last three notes of “Lonely Motel” seem heart-breaking.

The performance left me in high spirits and completely breathless!

*eighth blackbird players are Tim Munro, flutes; Michael J. Maccaferri, clarinets; Yvonne Lam, violin and viola; Nicholas Photinos, cello; Matthew Duvall, percussion, and Lisa Kaplan, piano.