Chicago’s four-time Grammy Award-winning ensemble Eighth Blackbird unveiled their Chicago Artist Workshop virtual concerts on Tuesday evening with Rebuilding/Crossing Bridges, a concert that featured a performance by another Grammy Award winner, Lebanese-American tenor Karim Sulayman. Accompanying Sulayman were Eighth Blackbird’s Lisa Kaplan on piano, glockenspiel, and accordion, and Matthew Duvall on marimba and piano.
The concert was originally supposed to livestream virtually last Tuesday, October 20, but that attempt was marred by technical difficulties, including a weird echo of Sulayman’s vocals. Instead of livestreaming, the session was recorded and presented this past Tuesday.
The program nicely blurred the lines between classical and pop, with several works by French composer Francis Poulenc and others interspersed with Lost and Looking by American soul icon Sam Cooke and Tomorrow’s Going to Be a Better Day by English folk rocker Billy Bragg. Sulayman’s beautifully smooth and lyrical voice was perfect for these disparate numbers. His approach is more focused on tone than vibrato, too much of which can be distracting.
The French songs of Poulenc comprised five works on the program, and they illustrated a large variety of styles this composer from the mid-20th century employed. It opened with Poulenc’s up-tempo romp Nous Coulons un Petit Soeur. Later in the program, Sulayman explained how Poulenc’s music reflects his experience serving in both world wars, and several of the numbers set music to texts from that era. The wistful Bleuet (Rookie) about a young soldier contemplating death made a nice contrast with the frolicking Fetes Galantes (Gallant Festivities).
A high point of the performance was Li Beirut, a wonderful lament in Arabic from 1984. Fairouz wrote this homage to a city in the grips of civil strife. Backing Sulayman up was Matthew Duvall playing an eerie marimba, interspersed with high, ringing notes by Lisa Kaplan on the glockenspiel.
This was followed by another sentimental work. Chicago composer Stacy Garrop set to music My Dearest Ruth, a moving goodbye note that Martin Ginsburg wrote to his wife, the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. As Garrop explained, Justice Ginsburg found the letter in a drawer of her husband’s hospital room as they were preparing to return home, where he died shortly thereafter. In 2012 Garrop was commissioned by the Ginsburg children, Jane Ginsburg and Jim Ginsburg of Chicago’s Cedille Records to put the beautiful message to music for the Justice’s 80th birthday. Garrop gave the text a wonderfully moody and introspective musical setting, and Sulayman extracted every ounce of feeling and emotion, especially the climax toward the end.
Lisa Kaplan took the stage solo with Frederic Rzewski’s Piano Piece #4, a work characterized by a constant onrush of rapid chords overlaid with eerie melodies. Kaplan precisely captured the rapidly shifting dynamics and was unfazed by a dog bark.
Following the somber settings, the concert ended with Billy Bragg, where Sulayman was backed by Kaplan on accordion and Duvall performing in public for the first time on piano. The concert’s only wrinkle was the accordion tended to overwhelm the others, but it was still a nice uplifting finale to a lovely performance.
The next Chicago Artist Workshop concert will be at 7pm Tuesday, November 11, when Rebecca Rego, joined by Leah Casey, will perform her Songs for Cleaning Women. Rego was inspired to write these songs by Lucia Berlin’s collection of short stories, A Manual for Cleaning Women. The performance on November 11 coincides with the release of these songs. Tickets are available here.