Music, Theatre & Dance professor Matthew Albert is the former violinist of the Grammy award-winning contemporary classical music ensemble Eighth Blackbird and serves as the current chair of the Department of Chamber Music in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance. In a phone interview with The Daily, he spoke about his role as a now active substitute violinist for Eighth Blackbird, the group’s canceled concerts scheduled in March, his own adjustment to the reality of the COVID-19 outbreak and its consequences at the University.
Albert joined SMTD’s faculty four years ago, leaving his previous job as the director of chamber music and the new music ensemble SYZYGY at Southern Methodist University’s Meadows School of the Arts. For years, Albert has balanced his responsibilities as a university professor with an active performing career.
“Eighth Blackbird began during my undergrad at Oberlin,” Albert said. “After that, everyone in the group went to grad school together, and from there we entered some competitions that led to an international touring career and residencies at institutions like the University of Richmond, the University of Chicago and the Curtis Institute of Music. I played with them for 15 years, and now I sub with them very regularly.”
Eighth Blackbird’s instrumentation includes two wind instruments, two string instruments, percussion and piano — also known as a “mixed sextet.” Since their beginnings, the group’s focus has centered on publicly known contemporary classical repertoire for their instrumentation to newly commissioned works written specifically for them. In recent years, they have devoted special care to choose repertoire that lifts underrepresented voices in contemporary classical music, namely those from women and people of color.
In mid-March, Eighth Blackbird had performances scheduled at the Oregon Music Festival in Portland. Besides giving masterclasses to the students present, they were also there to perform a concerto by renowned living composer Jennifer Higdon, which was written specifically for the group around 10 years ago. Unfortunately, both events were canceled due to COVID-19.
“I was on the road ready to play concerts when things started changing,” said Albert. “This time is really hard for everyone in the performing arts, mostly for those who rely entirely on concertizing to make their living. I feel really lucky that I’m in a unique position where performing is not my primary source of income, as I have a stable teaching position at the University to fall back on. Not everyone is so lucky.”
Eighth Blackbird’s April and May concerts have been postponed to later dates that are to be determined. Before all of the cancellations, though, the group had enjoyed a recital series spanning from Omaha, Nebr., to various cities in Sweden. Their concert programs consisted of repertoire from a diverse set of composers, including established names like Julius Eastman and recent University of Michigan alumna Nina Shekhar.
At the University, chamber music instruction and related events were the first things that were canceled. Chamber music requires groups of students, from two to at least eight, to gather in small spaces, listen to one another and play in real time – none of that could be accomplished with the newly mandated social distancing rules. Under normal circumstances, chamber music students are put into groups and are either assigned or are allowed to choose a major chamber music work to study throughout the semester with an assigned coach; Albert coaches several groups every semester. The semester normally culminates in scheduled performances dedicated to showcasing the student groups at venues like the Kerrytown Concert House, the Bloomfield Library and various student recitals on campus. This semester, however, came to an abrupt halt when the social distancing rules took place.
“Every group stopped receiving their regular coachings, and many groups were unable to complete the study of their repertoire, perform or attend masterclasses,” Albert said. Thus, students could only be graded on their progress to-date.
For many Music, Theatre & Dance students, chamber music is one of the great highlights of their collegiate musical career, often creating friendships across departments or degree programs. Some students find their closest friends in a group they were randomly assigned to their freshman year and stay with that group for all four years of college, entering competitions and playing concerts together. Last month, many had to say goodbye a lot sooner than they wanted to.
“This time has come upon us so suddenly, where today is so different from where we were only a couple weeks ago,” Albert said. “It’s normal to feel lost or confused, because much of where we get our inspiration has been taken away from us, which is many times from our colleagues. We cannot expect ourselves to function in the same way when our inspiration has changed.”
When inspiration is changed, it can be hard to regain that initial fire in your belly to work at your craft every single day and remember why you love what you do. To that, Albert said, “Be yourself! With that, I mean do whatever feels true to you, go deep and listen hard to what you love in what you’re doing, like certain kinds of movement, sounds or colors. Figure out ways to bring them forward.”
While everyone now is physically isolated away from close friends and family, that does not entail being emotionally distant from the people you love: the very people who are oftentimes the biggest support systems for your artistic goals.
Albert’s last word of advice? “Connect with other people, reach out, offer to help and listen while social distancing at home.”