Eighth Blackbird
Eighth Blackbird co-founders Lisa Kaplan and Matthew Duvall

From Aug. 19 through Sept. 19, the City of Chicago has invited everyone to celebrate the return of live music with its Chicago In Tune series. One of the initiative’s many highlights is the free Millennium Park Summer Music Series – held on Mondays (8/2-9/13) and Thursdays (9/2-9/16) from 6 to 8:30 p.m. – which is bringing a wide variety of genres and styles to Jay Pritzker Pavilion.

The Millennium Park Summer Music Series is set to conclude on Sept. 16 with a sure-to-be unforgettable performance entitled Grammy Legacies and Looking Ahead, starring Eighth Blackbird co-founders Lisa Kaplan and Matthew Duvall – the Grammy-winning, Chicago-based contemporary classical sextet comprised of Kaplan, Duvall, Lina Andonovska, Ashley Bathgate, Maiani da Silva, and Zachary Good – along with some very special guests.

We got a chance to chat with Kaplan about her excitement to return to the stage, the joy of collaboration, and what fans can expect from this celebratory concert.

The show will begin with Kaplan and Duvall performing as a duo. The decision was made in part because all Eighth Blackbird members weren’t available and in part to showcase the world premiere of ‘Latency’ by Pamela Z, a new piece that was developed in conjunction with an innovative fundraiser that benefited Eighth Blackbird, as well as several composers, during the pandemic lockdowns.

“We did a kind of end of year online auction and we asked a bunch of our friends who are composers if they would write what we called ‘lightening commissions,’ three to five minute pieces. People bid on these commissions and we gave half to the artists and half went to Eighth Blackbird as a fundraiser. It was really generous of all of them,” Kaplan explained. “For one of the pieces, Pamela Z chose to write a duo for Matthew and I so we wanted to find a nice, high-profile venue to premiere that piece. That was a little bit of the impetus in deciding to do the concert as a duo. Her piece is called ‘Latency’ and we’re going to premiere that work that evening so it will be really cool.”

Eighth Blackbird
Eighth Blackbird co-founders Lisa Kaplan and Matthew Duvall

Kaplan and Duvall will also be performing a “very quirky and really fun” composition by Andy Akiho, a “lovely piece” for piano and marimba by Chicago’s own Ayanna Woods, and – an excerpt from a larger theatrical piece – by Amy Beth Kirsten which finds Kaplan sharing her own vocals.

“I can sing in tune, but I don’t have what I would call a pretty voice and in a way that’s part of it. It’s supposed to be kind of raw, that was part of my character in this production,” Kaplan said. “That piece is called ‘My Charming Murderer’ and we thought that programming that would be a nice little segue into the collaborations.”

Collaborations are one of the central joys in experiencing Eighth Blackbird’s music on record or live in concert. For the Millennium Park show, Kaplan and Duvall are set to share the stage with a trio of talents in Grammy-winning tenor Karim Sulayman, spoken word artist and poet J. Ivy, and the powerful singer Tarrey Torae.

“Whenever you have collaboration regardless of what the genre is, it brings such a wonderful freshness into how you think about making music. Particularly with J. Ivy and Tarrey and Karim, they all happen to be great examples of collaborators who are so open,” said Kaplan, later adding, “They’re very thoughtful but also really mellow about it because they’re so talented. To be in that space with other people is inspiring to you. That’s what I love about collaboration. I feel inspired in a new way.”

These live collaborations began as livestreams that Eighth Blackbird hosted as a series of studio space sessions – supported by a repurposed grant from the National Endowment for the Arts – during the pandemic lockdown. Millennium Park concert-goers can expect to hear a few tunes from J. Ivy’s album Catching Dreams and Sulayman’s take on a work from Argentinian composer Gustavo Santaolalla among other songs. Torae along with all the featured artists will share the stage for a special performance of Sam Cooke’s “Lost and Lookin’.”

“Karim, J. Ivy, and Tarrey were all artists we invited into our space to present and do concerts. Matthew and I collaborated with them all in some way and they are wonderful artists. So we are bringing back some of that material that we did for those livestream concerts for this live concert at Millennium Park. I’m super excited,” said Kaplan. “I think it will be really beautiful and we’re excited because we did all of these collaborations as streams. It was great to be with each other for the streams but it will be really wonderful to be able to play for live humans.”

Looking ahead, Eighth Blackbird is planning the release of two new albums – one featuring a 70-minute piece, “Composition as Explanation,” by David Lang, the other a “retro” concept currently dubbed “Mixtape” – as well as focusing on the Blackbird Creative Lab mentorship initiative.

“This is a program in which we are basically training emerging performers both in how they curate and present their work and then how they think of it from an entrepreneurial side as well,” said Kaplan adding that after so many years of recording and performing with Eighth Blackbird it’s inspiring to have the “focus shift to the community coming forward.”

She said, “I want to pass this on to everyone. It just makes the music community as a whole brighter and greater.”

The Millennium Park Summer Music Series Grammy Legacies and Looking Ahead event – featuring members of Eighth Blackbird and special guests including Karim Sulayman, J. Ivy, and Tarrey Torae – takes place at Jay Pritzker Pavilion at 6 p.m. on Sept. 16. Click here for the event’s COVID-19 safety precaution information and the entire Chicago In Tune schedule can be found at Do312.

Keep up with all things Eighth Blackbird at Eighthblackbird.org.

This coverage is made possible with support from Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE).

Laurie Fanelli is a Chicago-based writer and photographer who specializes in live entertainment coverage. She is at home at major music festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo and, of course, Lollapalooza and...