When Heidelberg University music professors Doug McConnell and Brian Bevelander were formulating plans for the school's 24th annual New Music Festival,
they decided to try something different.
In past years, they had obtained work by a mainline contemporary composer and then enlisted musicians to play the composer's music. This year, the pair decided to have a guest ensemble they admired, eighth blackbird.
"They are six very accomplished musicians, as accomplished as you'll ever meet, here or elsewhere. ... They're all performing musicians. They are a very busy performing ensemble," McConnell said.
Having won a 2012 Grammy for best small ensemble with "Lonely Motel - Music from Slide," eighth blackbird is a sextet that combines the finesse of a string quartet with the energy and edge of a rock band, he said.
The Chicago-based ensemble is coming to Heidelberg between engagements at the Music Now concert series in Cincinnati and a performance at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
McConnell said he had purchased recordings by eighth blackbird and knew about the group before he saw them at a professional convention several years ago.
He was impressed with the way in which the musicians interacted with the audience.
He said the musicians emphasize the importance of making a personal connection with listeners, not just presenting a concert and providing performance notes in a program.
"They know that people look at new music and say, 'It's all that strange music that I won't understand. It's too intellectual or too dry.' ... You have to be willing to leave your expectations at the door and work on new ones. This group is very good at helping people to do that," he said.
For the New Music Festival, eighth blackbird is to perform a pair of concerts - at 7 p.m. Friday and 7 p.m. Saturday in Ohl Concert Hall.
Friday night is a "mini-residency" that McConnel compared to a pre-concert lecture but in a more casual format.
McConnell described the group's work as "music advocacy." Their presentation is given in "plain English" to explain that anyone can enjoy contemporary music, with or without a
musical background or a college degree.
Audience participation is not only encouraged, but necessary for the program to be successful, he said.
"They will play excerpts from the current season's repertoire, and some of the things they present may be on the Saturday night program. But they will talk about the pieces, how they're put together and how they work as ensemble musicians to present that music to the public," he said.
Saturday night, eighth blackbird will perform their formal concert program, which is to include compositions by Timo Andres, Nico Muhly, Andy Akiho, David Lang and Phillip Glass.
One of the country's most well-known living composers, Glass is being celebrated by ensembles worldwide in honor of his 75th birthday.
The personnel of eighth blackbird includes Tim Munro, flute; Michael J. Maccaferri, clarinet; Yvonne Lam, violin and viola; Nicholas Photinos, cello; Matthew Duvall, percussion; and Lisa Kaplan, piano.
Most recently, eighth blackbird toured Australia and debuted at the Sydney Opera House. Along with this international tour, they played in New York for the SONiC Festival, Kansas City, Ithaca, Princeton and with the Cincinnati Symphony.
Many contemporary, living composers have invited eighth blackbird to perform their works. The musicians have classical training, but they apply their expertise to modern works.
McConnell said their goal is to expose concert-goers to cutting-edge music that can be as enjoyable as the traditional concert fare that has endured over the centuries.
"They know the importance of the music of the masters, yet at the same time, they have an equal respect for the music of our own time that is sometimes written by composers that are not very familiar to the larger public," McConnell said. "It's a test of time thing, but in the meantime, we can't ignore the music of today. By encouraging the music of today and programming the music of today, we find the music of tomorrow and discover new pieces that might become part of that permanent repertoire of several generations from now."
McConnell said eighth blackbird performs several kinds of programs, but they are not symphony players or soloists.
They prefer to play as a small ensemble, performing the music of the present in a lively, educational and entertaining way, he said.
"We're very fortunate to have them here. They just happened to be going through the area, and they had an open date that fit in with our calendar. When you have those opportunities ... you have to make it happen," he said.
Admission to the concerts is free. More information on the group is at www.eighthblackbird.org.