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Birdfoot Festival's expanding universe

Birdfoot Festival rehearses at Madewood Plantation in Napoleonville in 2014. (photo: Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee)

Careening away from our planet at 38,000 miles per hour, Voyager 1, the tiny NASA spacecraft launched 40 years ago this September, made headlines in 2013 when it became the first man-made object to exit our solar system and enter interstellar space. The probe, now 12.8 billion miles from Earth, has long captured the popular imagination for what it carries: the Golden Record—a time capsule containing audio and images from Earth, designed to represent the human species as an entirety. Included among the terrestrial sounds on the disk is the music of Louis Armstrong, Bach, Beethoven, and Igor Stravinsky.

"It's sort of greetings to the universe," says violinist Jenna Sherry, artistic director of Birdfoot Festival. "If there are intelligent beings out there, and they find it—this is a portrait of Earth. And something about that I've always found really inspiring."

The sixth edition of the annual Birdfoot Festival is currently underway in New Orleans with classical and contemporary chamber music events unfolding in venues around the city though June 3. For Sherry, who programs the festival, pondering the Golden Record's hopeful representation of humanity made her consider what it means to be an artist and human, especially in a time of overt partisanship and anxiety.

"It's a year that—no matter what your political convictions—has just been a complete roller coaster," Sherry says. "And I think for artists, this last year has really made a lot of us look inside and really think about what is our role as artists—as musicians in the world. One thing I love about art is that art can ask the difficult questions—the really difficult and important questions about what makes us human and what is it to be human."

"What is it to relate to each other? What is it we live for? You know, the big stuff," she continues, with a laugh. "And we can do that without providing easy answers. So I think a lot of this year's Birdfoot Festival program tries to get at some of these difficult questions."

Offering performances by a company of classically trained rising stars from across the globe, this year's Birdfoot Festival showcases music spanning three centuries and features four works by living composers. This includes a brand new piece by Birdfoot's 2017 composer-in-residence Patrick Castillo entitled, "Living is Easy with Eyes Closed" for string orchestra and electronics.

The latter work get its world premiere at tonight's Birdfoot’s "Per Aspera, Ad Astra" concert at Café Instanbul at 8:00 PM. The evening's program will feature sounds and scores included on the Golden Record, including Beethoven's wistful Cavatina from String Quartet, Op. 130 and Stravinsky's four-hand piano arrangement of "Adoration of the Earth" from his ballet The Rite of Spring. Also on the program are two dazzling works for strings: a duo for violin and cello by Latvian composer Peteris Vasks and Henri Dutilleux's Ainsi la nuit ("Thus the Night"), one of the great quartets of the late 20th century.

On Thursday, June 1, the festival presents a double-header beginning with its popular "Birdfoot Backstage" event at the Contemporary Arts Center at 7:00 PM. Festival artists will delve into Felix Mendelssohn’s celebrated second quintet and give audiences an opportunity to connect with the work both historically and from a musician’s point of view. This is followed by "Late Night Rite" at Three Keys, the intimate music venue at Ace Hotel New Orleans. The 10:00 PM performance features music from The Rite of Spring and contemporary German composer and clarinetist Jörg Widmann's third string quartet, the Jagdquartett ("Hunt Quartet").

Widmann's delightfully twisted 2003 work, which distorts the first movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony to create a kind of musical bedlam, is featured Friday, June 2 at the CAC at 8:00 PM as part of Birdfoot’s "Rules of the Dance" concert. Sherry explained that the name of the night's performance is a nod to the way humans interact with each other in groups and society.

"There are all of these rules," she says. "They go by different names—sometimes 'etiquette', sometimes other things—and they change and they shift. And sometimes people break the rules. And sometimes things go really badly. And sometimes they go beautifully. So, we're exploring various angles of this with a bunch of really fun music."

"This is a program I’m really excited about actually," Sherry adds.

The program will feature British composer Thomas Adès's 1991 work, "Catch", which, like Widmann's quartet, engages listeners as it playfully subverts expectations. The program will also feature music of French Baroque composer François Couperin, and The Rite of Spring in its entirety.

For the "Final Gala Concert" the festival presents an evening of crowd-pleasing chamber works including Mendelssohn's Second Quintet, a revisit of Dutilleux's Ainsi la nuit, and Johannes Brahms's autumnal masterpiece Clarinet Trio. All three pieces fully engage listeners and ask a lot of its players.

"Birdfoot really believes that the best art comes from when artists have time to work," Sherry says. "So we try and build that in, and we think the results that come out of it, for the audience—you know, you can taste them, you can feel them. It makes a huge difference."

Click below to listen to the full 20th Century Classics interview with Jenna Sherry, conducted Sunday, May 21 on WTUL New Orleans.

The 2017 Birdfoot Festival runs from May 30-June 3. For more information about the events, visit Birdfoot Festival’s official website.

Joe Shriner is a radio engineer and producer in New Orleans. He hosts 20th Century Classics Sunday evenings on WTUL New Orleans.