Birdfoot Festival’s fourth year is no small feat
Growing up playing violin in New Orleans, Jenna Sherry, the artistic director and co-founder of the Birdfoot Festival, noticed that although she had a tremendous passion for chamber music there was a remarkable lack of interest or discussion about it in her hometown.
“As a musician, it was always very strange for me coming from a city with such an amazing music culture and then always having to go elsewhere to play chamber music,” Sherry says. “That was always a bit sad and sort of a head-scratcher to think of how many people there were with such an eclectic musical taste who hadn’t quite discovered it.”
This bewilderment led Sherry on a quest to find out how people thought about classical music and to get them listening with fresh ears — leaving behind any preconceptions of the form as stuffy and outdated. In her experience, whenever she opened the door, new listeners would connect and their interest would only mount from there. Sherry’s mission led to her co-founding the first Birdfoot Festival in 2012.
“Birdfoot, in a way, was started to try and experiment with how we might do that [exposing new listeners to chamber music] in New Orleans," Sherry says. "It was a way to present chamber music not as classical music, but as great music in the venues that it really works best in — small intimate venues —which we have so many of.”
Among the first three festivals, venues have included the Old U.S. Mint, Snug Harbor, Little Gem Saloon and Café Istanbul. These unconventional locations have become as much of a draw for audiences as the festival's immensely talented musicians — all rising international stars who Sherry chose for their artistry and ability to work well together. Add the fact that the chamber works presented in each concert combine brilliant performances of mainstream repertoire with works seldom, if ever, heard on New Orleans stages, and you have a pretty good idea of what Birdfoot is all about.
Each year, the Birdfoot Festival’s youthful celebration of chamber music gets more ambitious, with a growing number of annual events being added to the festival’s programming, extending and broadening its reach into the community. For instance, the number of community concerts and open rehearsals expand each year. A chamber music reading party; a dinner event; and “Birdfoot Backstage,” broadcasted by WWNO, have given audiences even more ways to connect with the artists and the music. And in 2013, a program that mentors local high school-age musicians was included.
This year, Birdfoot has even more to offer — most notably the addition of spoken word to the programming. On May 29 at 6 p.m., local poet Elizabeth Gross will curate “Waterlines — Poetry & Spoken Word” at the Contemporary Arts Center. This showcase will feature local poets, writers and spoken word artists exploring the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the local community and what it all means to us now. Later that evening, at 8 p.m., as part of Birdfoot’s “Waterlines — A Hymn for New Orleans” concert, West Bank poet Kataalyst Alcindor will recite his poems to the accompaniment of a chamber quartet. Also a part of this event will be performances of chamber works by Thomas Adès, Kaija Saariaho, a piano trio arrangement of Claude Debussy’s “Le Mer” and Samuel Barber’s “Adagio.”
Birdfoot musicians will perform their first concert on Wednesday, May 27 at 8 p.m. at Café Istanbul. Included in this program is the local premiere of “Society of the Free and Easy,” by composer and University of New Orleans music faculty member Yotam Haber. The piece was written to be premiered with Anton Webern’s luscious “Langsamer Satz,” which also will be featured, along with Maurice Ravel’s “Sonata for violin and cello.” The concert will also spotlight “Light Screens” by Andrew Norman and selections of his “A Companion Guide to Rome,” a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize.
The final gala concert will be held on May 30 at 8 p.m. at Tulane University's Dixon Hall. Birdfoot musicians will be performing Mozart’s “Flute Quartet in D,” Ernst von Dohnány’s rarely-performed “Piano Quintet No. 2” and Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence.” Violinist Kristopher Tong, one of three Birdfoot artist who has been with the festival since the beginning, requested that the “Souvenir de Florence” be performed, a work that Jenna says is a fantastic piece, full of life and vigor.
“Imagine Italian gelato made with Russian cream,” says Sherry of "Souvenir de Florence." “Unfortunately, it’s a piece that gets bashed through a lot; it’s often thrown together in a hurry in a festival. And Kris and I were thinking, ‘What if we really give it a lot of time and attention and love? What will we discover?’”
Questions like these are precisely what makes Sherry excited about chamber music and, she feels, get to the heart of what Birdfoot is all about.
“One of the really special things about this festival is our goal to create this dialogue with our artists and the entire community of New Orleans about music, about chamber music — I don’t really care if it’s classical or not — about contemporary music," Sherry says. "What is good music and what is listening to music? How do we interact with it, and what is it about live performance that makes it special? That’s what’s really so exciting.”
Birdfoot Festival 2015 runs from May 20 - 30, with rehearsals from May 20 - 25 at NolaVie columnist Keith Marshall's Madewood Plantation in Napoleanville and concerts in New Orleans beginning May 25. For complete event listings, visit Birdfoot Festival’s official website.
Society of the Free and Easy
Wednesday, May 27, 2015, 8 p.m.
Café Istanbul, New Orleans Healing Center ( 2372 St Claude Ave.)
Andrew Norman: Selections from Companion Guide to Rome
Yotam Haber: Society of the Free and Easy (New Orleans premiere)
Maurice Ravel: Sonata for violin and cello
Andrew Norman: Light Screens
Anton Webern: Langsamer Satz
Waterlines — A Hymn for New Orleans
Friday, May 29, 2015, 8 p.m.
Freeport MacMoRan Theater, Contemporary Arts Center ( 900 Camp St.)
Thomas Adès: Selections from Arcadiana
Kaija Saariaho: Mirrors for flute and cello
Kataalyst Alcindor: Interludes and Poems
Claude Debussy (arr. Sally Bearmish): La Mer
Samuel Barber: Adagio
Final Gala Concert: Souvenir de Florence
Saturday, May 30, 2015, 8:00 p.m.
Dixon Hall, Tulane University
W. A. Mozart: Flute Quartet in D major, K. 285
Ernst von Dohnányi: Piano Quintet No. 2
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Souvenir de Florence