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Flights of Fancy

Grammy? Check. MacArthur artist grant? Check. eighth blackbird continues to astound during its MCA residency.

NATIONAL TREASURE
This month, eighth blackbird will perform work by Bryce Dessner.

Grammy Award-winning eighth blackbird is defying expectations with its latest residency, which is taking place not at a university, as is typical, but at the Museum of Contemporary Art. And rather than the usual smattering of open events that accompany such stays, the Chicago-based contemporary sextet is rehearsing publicly in a gallery there five days a week for at least three hours when not on tour.

“It’s been a really interesting experiment,” says cellist Nicholas Photinos. “We initially thought: Oh, is it going to be strange? Everybody can just watch us, and is it going to feel like we’re just out there in our underwear? But it really doesn’t.”

Regular concerts also have been a big part of the 10-month residency that runs through June; a highlight comes March 25 and 26 with a program featuring a new work by Bryce Dessner. Although perhaps best known as the guitarist for the famed indie-rock band The National, the multifaceted musician has a significant presence in the classical realm, having written commissions for such major ensembles as the Kronos Quartet and Los Angeles Philharmonic.

This concert will feature his “Murder Ballades,” a set of sometimes haunting, sometimes propulsive short works that are all based—some more distantly than others—on American folk tunes like “Pretty Polly” or “Omie Wise” that chronicle often-gruesome killings. Dessner calls it a “big about-face” from his earlier more Eurocentric music—a move that seemed appropriate to him for this open-minded ensemble. “They have such a broad approach to programming,” he says. “So, I was thinking: I’m going to look into writing something really American.”

eighth blackbird recorded the piece for its 2016 Grammy-winning album, Filament, and Dessner has since added a few more sections. The expanded version will be featured at the MCA along with a work by Frederic Rzewski and the Chicago premier of Ghostlight, a piece the group commissioned from hot composer David T. Little. 7:30pm, tickets $30, 220 E. Chicago Ave., 312.397.4010