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Music Review

Firebird Ensemble feeds off the written word

By Matthew Guerrieri
Globe Correspondent / December 9, 2009

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MEDFORD - The romantic idea that music begins where language leaves off is, like most romantic ideas, a seductive simplification. The Firebird Ensemble’s Monday night concert at Tufts University offered a more nuanced picture: four new works, each implicitly or explicitly referencing the written word.

The first two came courtesy of Tufts graduate students, the culmination of a Firebird residency. Roberto Toscano’s “. . . and if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you’’ curates a grab-bag of Friedrich Nietzsche aphorisms, although, while soprano Aliana de la Guardia was tasked with much wordless, sinuous singing, the words themselves were spoken, an oddly prosaic touch. With a string duo and bowed percussion, Toscano engineered an expanded metallic scrape, drawn out for the duration: a one-note piece, but that note arresting and atmospheric.

Justin Tierney’s “The God Script’’ sets Jorge Luis Borges’s tale of an imprisoned Aztec priest trying to discern divine revelation in a jaguar’s spots; Tufts drama professor Laurence Senelick narrated over an eight-player ensemble. Tierney’s dark-hued music had polished, ominous richness, though the music was largely reactive; Senelick (giving an excellent reading, committed and wry) often introduced a section on his own, the players then confirming the mood, not establishing it. And cinematic literalness occasionally worked against the story, clearing the original’s liminal haze between faith and hallucination. But the sound-worlds were cogent and immediate. The performance (with Jeffrey Means conducting) was superb, robust, and grand.

Firebird’s fall season has featured two composers from opposite coasts, Pennsylvania-based Eric Moe and Californian Donald Crockett; Monday featured adept renditions of commissions that the group premiered back in October. Moe’s “Frozen Hours Melt Melodiously Into the Past’’ reworks Richard Wilbur settings, translating the vocal line for cello solo (David Russell, sonorous and panoramic), a quintet of players filling out the music. Moe’s trellis of chromatic, yearning counterpoint was a frame for impressionistic cascades, clanging storms, and inner, concentrated lyricism.

That sort of reserved lyricism also marked Crockett’s “to airy thinness beat’’ (title and mood drawing on John Donne’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning’’), a loose-limbed chamber concerto featuring Firebird’s artistic director, violist Kate Vincent. Her stream-of-consciousness line in the opening movement gently ricocheted among the other six musicians. The second movement is sharper, aggressively hesitant; the finale juxtaposes both moods. Crockett’s sounds ring bright, even in ruminative softness, an insistent resonance. The poetry remained unspoken, but the interaction still sparked.

FIREBIRD ENSEMBLE Kate Vincent, artistic director

At: Granoff Music Center, Tufts University, Monday

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