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Birdfoot Festival makes chamber music accessible to New Orleanians

Birdfoot Festival returns for its fourth year, chamber music and unique locations, one of which is Madewood Plantation in Napoleonville (pictured). (photo: Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee)

Birdfoot Festival musicians rehearsing at Madewood Plantation. (photo: Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee)

The definition of “chamber music” is a complicated one, as it is open to various interpretations, meaning many different things to different people. The modern definition describes the genre as performances of works with two or more instrumentalists in a small room, with each individual playing a different part.

Even this broad definition has been challenged, however. For instance, Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time” features instrumentalists playing the same parts in unison. Alternatively, Brett Dean’s composition “Carlo” features a live performance of string instruments along with prerecorded samples and tape, and local composer Yotam Haber’s “Society of the Free and Easy” was written to be performed outside; not in a small room.

It is no coincidence that all three of these works have been performed at Birdfoot Festivals over the last three years, along with several other works that have stretched the definition of chamber music. While Birdfoot Festival continues to grow in popularity and expand its events each year, this year’s festival demonstrated that its primary goals remains the same: to challenge audiences' expectations of chamber music and to bring inspiring performances to New Orleans with youthful enthusiasm and accessibility.

The success of Birdfoot’s fourth season is due, in no small part, to Artistic Director Jenna Sherry’s dedication to sourcing artists who, like her, are immensely talented with their instruments and share in her unceasing desire to ask questions and find joy in the process. Newcomers, such as violinist Karen Kim or cellist Sæunn Thorsteinsdóttir, appeared at home on Birdfoot stages just as much as when they participated in conversations with audiences about the nature of chamber music. Each offered exceptional performances, the most impressive being their interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence,” which ended the festival.

Returning for his fourth year, Kristopher Tong was a perfect example of what makes Birdfoot so alluring. Throughout the festival, the violinist seemed to be everywhere at once -- relishing in playing live as much as rehearsing at Madewood, educating spectators at Birdfoot Backstage and enjoying his fellow artists’ performances in the audience. Tong jumped in last minute for the brilliant performance of selections from Thomas Adès’s string quartet, “Arcadiana,” and provided a masterful interpretation of the first violin in “Souvenir de Florence.” One standout piece for Tong, as well as the festival, was Maurice Ravel’s “Sonata for Violin and Cello,” which he played with virtuosic splendor with the equally skilled Vladimir Waltham.

The performance of the Ravel work was featured in Birdfoot’s first concert, “Society for the Free and Easy” at Café Instanbul. A string trio began the evening with miniatures from Andrew Norman’s “The Companion Guide to Rome.” The piece makes minimal use of the instruments, with musicians playing notes as well as using their instruments to create nonmusical sounds. From there, the works by Haber and Ravel led to an electrifying performance of Norman’s driving “Light Screens,” which brought audiences to the edges of their seats. Ending the night with Anton Webern’s romantic “Langsamer Satz,” the Birdfoot musicians created the image of building a festival one piece at a time, beginning with almost nothing and finishing with full, luscious sound.

New Orleans poet Kataalyst Alcindor joined this year’s Birdfoot Festival, providing spoken word to one of the most powerful concerts Birdfoot has presented, “Waterlines: A Hymn for New Orleans” at the CAC, which was designed to explore the legacy of Hurricane Katrina. As the quartet launched into Adès’s discordant “Arcadiana,” Alcindor, slumped over on a piano bench between them and swaying from side to side, laughed maniacally before jumping to the front of the stage in the role of carnival barker, welcoming his audience to his city.

The combination of poetry and selections of the 1994 chamber work was unique and effective, as if they were written to be performed together. Alcindor set the tone for the evening, giving extra resonance to the piano trio performance of Claude Debussy’s “Le Mer” and Samuel Barber’s “Adagio.”

“How do we deal with pain?” Alcindor solemnly asked God in his interlude before “Adagio.” “‘Do as the clouds do. Cry. And move forward’.”

Local bassist Paul Macres joined all Birdfoot string players in a haunting rendition of the work, which left the sold-out audience speechless and unable to move for a remarkably long time before they brought down the house with applause.

Birdfoot ended this year’s festival with a more conventional “Final Gala” concert at Tulane University’s Dixon Hall, where musicians played an exceptional interpretation of Mozart’s “Flute Quartet No. 1,” showcasing the abilities of flutist Garrett Hudson (who also jumped in last minute for the festival). Following, musicians performed Ernst von Dohnányi’s “Piano Quintet No. 2,” a piece rarely, if ever, performed. “Souvenir de Florence” ended the festival and received a long standing ovation from listeners. The Dohnányi and Tchaikovsky pieces were performed at the request of Birdfoot musicians, and the enthusiasm that comes with that degree of intimacy with the music with was obvious.

With the brilliant execution of Birdfoot 2015, the annual festival has raised its own bar again, leaving fans of chamber music -- old and new -- wondering what Birdfoot will present next year. Whatever 2016 has to offer, we can be assured the artists and their performances are going to challenge and entertain us, and we should expect the unexpected.