New York Times - January 31, 2003 - Allan Kozinn


The Firebird Ensemble, a young group from Boston, made its New York debut with an ambitious and eclectic program on Wednesday evening at Elebash Hall, the attractive recital space at the CUNY Graduate Center. Like many groups of its kind, Firebird draws on a fairly large complement of performers so that just about any combination of instruments is possible. Even so, much of the program focused more firmly on individual strengths within the ensemble.

Rafael Popper-Keizer, the group's cellist, opened the program with ''Triage'' (2002), a work of his own for solo cello. Harmonically conservative but full of energy and coloristic variety, the score showed Mr. Popper-Keizer to be imaginative in both his capacities and possessed of a solid technique and a warm sound.

Sarah Bob, the ensemble's pianist, took a solo turn in Curtis K. Hughes's ''Avoidance Tactics No. 1'' (2001), a fiery work for piano and tape. Building on Henry Cowell's tone-cluster writing, Mr. Hughes had Ms. Bob pounding the keys vigorously, often with her forearm, but within the din there were some great moments of interaction between the keyboard and the taped and electronically altered percussion sounds.

Lee Hyla's ''In Double Light'' (1983) for viola, bass clarinet, piano and percussion is a study in balances: often the ensemble is divided into duets, holding simultaneous but rhythmically interlocking conversations. And Luciano Berio's ''Naturale'' (1985) is an idiosyncratic viola and percussion dialogue, sometimes abstract, sometimes engagingly folkish, with a taped Sicilian folksong occasionally joining the texture. The work was presented in a choreographed version, danced by Kindra Windish.

The group's strengths as an ensemble were most evident in Juliana Trivers's ''Cauldron of Morning'' (2001), a setting of Sylvia Plath poems linked by brief instrumental interludes. Ms. Trivers's sensitivity to the text yielded appealingly dark vocal lines, and the instrumental scoring for flute, clarinet, violin, viola, cello and bass often magnified Plath's peculiar emotional world with a directness that matched and at times surpassed the vocal writing. Especially striking was a stark duet for violin and clarinet that connected the first two poems, ''November Graveyard'' and ''Lorelei.'' Jessica Bowers, the mezzo-soprano, wavered around pitches slightly, but seemed to feel the texts.

The full ensemble performed Earle Brown's ''December 1952,'' a graphic score (that is, the musical text is a series of horizontal and vertical lines of varied thicknesses and spacing) that demands an improvisatory spirit. The ensemble took to the aisles for the performance, surrounding the audience and encouraging listeners to add noises of their own.

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