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Firebird Ensemble brings a variety of sounds, ideas to new music

By From page A5 | April 21, 2013


* Monday, 7 p.m.: “From Calm to Clash,” featuring music for marimba, snare drum, piano trio and mid-sized ensemble by composers Stephen Stucky, Donald Crockett, Nicholas Papador, Roger Zahab, Curtis Hughes and Eric Moe. The concert will be in the Vanderhoef Studio Theatre at the Mondavi Center. Tickets are $20 general, $8 for students.

* Thursday, noon: A free recital in Yoche Dehe Grand Lobby at the Mondavi Center featuring works by UC Davis graduate composers Fang-Wei Luo, Chris Castro and Bryce Cannell.

* Friday, 7 p.m.: “Mystical Journeys,” featuring music for violin and piano, string trio and mid-sized ensemble by composers Jonathan Harvey, Andrew Norman, C. Bryan Rulon and Rolf Wallin. The concert will be in the Vanderhoef Studio Theatre at the Mondavi Center. Tickets are $20 general, $8 for students.

Tickets: www.mondaviarts.org or 530-754-2787

The Firebird Ensemble — a contemporary music ensemble that has premiered more than 50 works since the group’s founding in 2001 — will visit UC Davis this month under the sponsorship of the university’s music department, performing two evening concerts plus a free noontime recital.

Based in Massachusetts, the group — which features a lineup of viola, flute, percussion, piano, violin, clarinet and cello — is led by artistic director and viola player Kate Vincent, who’s lived in several cities on different continents.

“I grew up in Perth, Australia … one of the world’s windiest cities, with a warm climate that is not dissimilar to San Diego,” Vincent explained by phone. “Then I went to Boston, where I earned master’s degrees in viola performance and music education at the New England Conservatory. That’s where I met most of the people who play in the Firebird Ensemble; many of them are New England Conservatory grads.”

But after 12 years of frosty Boston winters, Vincent decided a bit more sunshine and warmth was a good idea. So she now spends part of the year in Los Angeles, and part of the year in Boston.

“I find that the mix is a wonderful combination, musically and culturally,” she said.

For the two programs at UCD, Vincent brought together some contrasting music as well.

“The Monday program is titled ‘From Calm to Clash,’ ” she said, and that title offers a glimpse of what will be offered. Opening up the program will be Stephen Stucky’s piece of solo marimba, “Dust Devil” (2009), which opens with a quick, twisting chromatic musical figure somewhat reminiscent of the swirling dust devils sometimes seen in the desert (or even rural Yolo County) in the summer. But just as real-life dust devils don’t generate a thunderous sound, this solo marimba piece features constant but comparatively quiet motion, leaving room for nuance and color in performance.

Another piece on the program Monday — “Night Scenes” for piano trio, by Don Crockett, also from 2009 — has movements titled “Scatter the Barbarians,” “The Blue Guitar,” “Midnight Train” and “Night Hawks,” which are meant to evoke “scenes from imaginary movies or very possible scenes of the moviegoers themselves.”

Also on Monday will be a trio of short snare drum pieces, as well as composer Eric Moe’s “Meanwhile Back at the Ranch” (2011). It was commissioned by the Firebird Ensemble, and while the title might seem to hint at the American West, the music actually was composed in Europe. The Firebird Ensemble has an all-Moe disc coming out on New World Records in a few months.

The concert on Friday will present a different approach.

“The Friday program is titled ‘Mystical Journeys,’ and all the pieces have an element of mystique or surrealism,” Vincent said.

American composer C. Bryan Rulon’s “Divine Detours” (1993) will feature the Firebird Ensemble playing in conjunction with 10 wind-up music boxes. “Each player has a couple of them, and sets them off at different times. The way they mix with his written, notated score is very interesting,” Vincent said. “The music has tinges of the Renaissance.”

There’s also a  piece for string trio by composer Andrew Norman, titled “A Companion Guide to Rome,” which features multiple short movements that were inspired in different ways by churches that the composer visited in Rome. The piece was premiered in 2010 by the Scharoun Ensemble, a German new music group that will visit the Mondavi Center next March.

Also on the Friday program will be Scandinavian composer Rolf Wallin’s “The Age of Wire and String” (2005), which borrows its title from the debut novel by American author Ben Marcus, set in “a world that defies earthly laws of nature, but still seems to have its own set of laws and logic, consistent yet ungraspable.” The music is likewise intended to “transport our minds to places never visited before.”

And Friday’s concert also will feature British composer Jonathan Harvey’s “Flight Elegy” for violin and piano (1989), which is an elegy for an RAF pilot (also a violinist) who died under mysterious circumstances — he took off at dusk, his body was found later without a scratch and the plane was never found.

There also will be a free noontime recital on Thursday featuring the Firebird Ensemble performing new works by UCD graduate composers Fang-Wei Luo, Chris Castro and Bryce Cannell.

Vincent said the variety on the three programs is deliberate: “I want to expose audiences to as much variety in the new music genre as possible.”

Vincent acknowledged that some listeners to have “unpleasant preconceptions about contemporary music,” and one of the goals of the Firebird Ensemble is to bring a degree of enjoyment to the experience.

“One of my favorite audience remarks is something I overheard once in the women’s restroom during intermission at one of our concerts,” Vincent said. “There were two ladies of a certain age, and one of them said ‘Oh my gosh, I never would have thought I’d enjoy this type of music. But it is really quite fun.’

“That’s kind of what I want — for people to be interested, engaged, challenged and touched, and have a good time. A whole range of experiences,” Vincent said.

— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or 530-747-8055.

Jeff Hudson

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