Bostonist - September 21, 2008 - C. Fernsebner

Firebird Ensemble and Boston Musica Viva at the Institute of Contemporary Art

Firebird Ensemble, based in Somerville and outfitted like an accomplished H&M ad in black and red and sparkling knitwear, opened the Ditson Festival of Contemporary Music on Thursday night. They began with a darkly animated piece that sounded like a fit night of half-sleep in a bed of swaying strings, heckled by lonely trills of from a flute and the footsteps of a piano that approached like a serial killer. Never has sudden bongoing sounded more ominous to Bostonist's ears. (Leafing through the program after the fact, we saw that the composer, Curtis Hughes, has titled it, in lowercase, "danger garden".)

Firebird Ensemble is always a pleasure to hear, and to watch, playing with crazy precision that made parts of Mario Davidovsky's "Flashbacks" seem like a series of physical actions and reactions, percussion knocking into piano and rippling out through violin, obedient to the laws of physics.

The oldest pieces in the festival program were written in the forties, and many of the composers are alive and local and on hand to take their bows. Lee Hyla came out to explain the genesis of his composition while Firebird (down one cellist due to imminent childbirth) rearranged themselves. "Polish Folk Songs" (2007) had its genesis in his confrontation, as a young "hardcore modernist," with the beauty and emotional pull of folk singing at his grandmother's funeral, and a subsequent joyride through the Tatra Mountains. The result is a bright, unpredictable bumper-car floor of folk tunes, sometimes uniting mournfully, and movingly, before dissolving into the fray again or switching to warm, fuzzy organ between movements with the abruptness of a cinematic cut.

Between shows, Bostonist saw the ICA's glowing blue unisex restrooms and, waiting in an echoing antechamber on the third floor, studied the diverse array of shoes: loafers, sneakers, ornate wingtips, Birkenstocks with intensely red socks, and the tallest, most scifi Fluevog boots we've ever seen on a human before. We caught a brief glimpse of the moonlit harbor before opaque black shades were brought down over the glass walls of the auditorium. This was, perhaps, because one of the pieces to be performed by Boston Musica Viva, Richard & Deborah Cornell's "Tracer" (2003) called for a projected video that, conductor Richard Pittman explained, had been initially conceived as a video game. Lacking joysticks, we travelled on autopilot through a chunkily-rendered snowglobe of transparent .gif pictograms.

Ronald Perera's pensive "Three Poems of Günter Grass" (1947) necessitated another odd sight: a black box, slumped in a chair like a sullen guest musician, that was called upon to play musique concrète loops of poetry and Nuremberg soundbites. Only the first poem's German text and English translation was was tucked into the programs, but mezzo-soprano Pamela Dellal sang and spoke with an gorgeous intensity that left language barriers shaken if not quite overcome.

Boston Music Viva also performed Gunther Schuller's much more recent "Four Vignettes" (2007), which started airy and light and seemed to turn into an unidentified cassette tape played backwards at high speed, and premiered Julie Rohwein's moody and somewhat disjointed-feeling "Borne on the Wind" (2008). After hearing a lot of new work back to back, the uninitiated listener can be excused for thinking that it all starts to sound like a xylophone falling down the stairs. (This Bostonist, at least, hopes to be excused.) The economy of the evening's final piece was, then, a relief: Chou Wen-Chung's "Twilight Colors" (2007) proceeded carefully, building a landscape with slow washes and cautious echoes.

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