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Music Review

Firebird puts new pieces -- and a fresh approach -- on the menu

Email|Print| Text size + By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / February 13, 2008

SOMERVILLE - When classical programs are called "meaty," it typically suggests they include a lot of substantial repertoire, and not per se that the music is served up with large portions of barbecue and hushpuppies. But that was exactly the case on Monday night, when the Firebird Ensemble performed in a low-slung basement space at Redbones BBQ in Davis Square. Tuxedos and poker-faces were checked at the door. Percussionist Aaron Trant played near a big picture of a pig with a surfboard.

None of it was as shocking as it might have been a decade ago. The indie classical music scene is thriving these days, as more and more conservatory-trained musicians seek out new audiences and new venues where tradition weighs less heavily. This is the third time that Firebird has made the inspired pairing of barbecue and adventurous classical music under the title of "Meat the Composer."

The crowd was surprisingly sparse at the first of the ensemble's two sets, possibly thanks to the early start time of 6 p.m. Rane Moore opened with an enthralling performance of Lee Hyla's "Mythic Birds of Saugerties," a soulful modernist paean to the birds of upstate New York, for solo bass clarinet. Next came Jacob Ter Veldhuis's "Lipstick," an entertaining if rather thin piece that layers quick and jaunty flute runs (played with virtuosity and lavish care by Sarah Brady) on top of a pre-recorded tape with looped and scrambled voices from the Jerry Springer TV show, a French psychiatrist, and Billie Holiday.

Violist (and Firebird artistic director) Kate Vincent then deftly tossed off a new work from Lisa Bielawa's Synopsis series called "I Don't Even Play the Bassoon." It riffs imaginatively on the opening solo from "The Rite of Spring," its title apparently referring to Bielawa's own anxiety dream. Trant's "It's Over" and "Song 4" both placed a spotlight on Rohan Gregory's freewheeling fiddle playing and marked a departure into the Latin, jazz, and heavy metal-influenced territory of the rest of the set, consisting mostly of guitarist Fred Sladkey's string-friendly arrangements of songs by Tool, Todd Rundgren, Breaking Benjamin, and Metallica. Violinist Gabby Diaz joined Gregory to provide some refreshingly un-soupy string texture, and David Russell's assertive cello playing both anchored and propelled the bass lines. Sarah Bob was a suavely understated presence on keyboard, and Sarah Brindell made a cameo on vocals for Jonathan Holland's free-spirited arrangement of a vintage Womack/Woods disco number.

These sets can be a tricky balancing act and this one, in a departure for Firebird, leaned a bit heavily on the arrangements. It also might have benefited from a host or emcee. But the ensemble is clearly honing an approach with a lot of potential. The relaxed atmosphere breeds a sorely needed openness to experiment, and a sense that newness need not be stigmatized as such. It helps of course that the point of comparison here for a new work is not Brahms but Breaking Benjamin, and that the listeners appear more concerned with pulled pork than posterity. The musicians, meanwhile, are quite obviously having a blast, which is also not a bad place to begin.

Jeremy Eichler can be reached at jeichler@globe.com.

Firebird Ensemble

At: Redbones BBQ, Monday night

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