Firebird Ensemble heats up at Longy
CAMBRIDGE - “Mythic Beasts: Music of Myth and Imagination’’ was the title of Firebird Ensemble’s first program of the season, and indeed, the small audience at Longy School’s Pickman Concert Hall was transported, as if on the back of a great roc, to Japan for Eric Guinivan’s “Mie: Caprice for Eight Musicians’’ (2008), Italy for Andrew Norman’s “The Companion Guide to Rome’’ (2010), India and Pakistan for the world premiere of Guinivan’s “Avalerion,’’ and back home for John McDonald’s “Seven Album Leaves’’ (2011). As for John Orfe’s “Dragon’’ (1997), well, there be dragons everywhere.
But it was another mythic beast that was the inspiration for “Avalerion,’’ a piece commissioned for Firebird Ensemble, and a present to the group on its 10th birthday. The avalerion is a firebird-like creature about whom little is known, so in this work - for flute, clarinet, string trio, piano, and two percussionists - Delaware native Guinivan adopted the death-and-rebirth narrative of the phoenix, using Tibetan singing bowls (which were bowed) and other Eastern percussion to complement the Western winds and strings. “Avalerion’’ began and ended with a melody in the viola, and in between there was a dark and stormy death scene, but it was Amy Advocat’s soaring clarinet that made the piece take flight.
Every composition had a story. “Dragon,’’ for three percussionists, told a simple one, the beast approaching stealthily by means of brushed cymbals and triangles and occasionally thwacking its tail (the bass drum) before pouncing in an orgy of tam-tams. “Seven Album Leaves’’ included dedications to two local composers; the best sections were the final two, “Notturnino,’’ with its evocation of Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,’’ and “Patient Sid,’’ where Sarah Brady’s flute recalled the hushed stillness of Debussy’s “Syrinx.’’
“The Companion Guide to Rome’’ is actually Norman’s tribute to his nine favorite Roman churches. Written for string trio, the piece begins with some furious bowing and scraping (“Teresa’’ - the saint’s ecstasy?) and proceeds mostly through stops and starts, with one section (“Ivo’’) of extended glissandos. I was sorry that Firebird omitted the ninth and longest section, “Sabina,’’ which rises from the fragments of what’s gone before. “Mie,’’ Guinivan’s other composition on the program, takes its name from a kabuki pose of great drama, though the piece itself seems more of an argument between its two E-flat clarinets and its two trombones, with percussion commentary.
Everyone in the Ensemble wore the same colors, flame red and black. The choice suits the group’s style as well as its name: These musicians play with fire.
Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.