Firebird Rising: chamber orchestra to open second season with a fresh look at Vivaldi

By David Fleshler

Fire Bird V by Cecil Herring

In a series of concerts in South Florida this week, the Firebird Chamber Orchestra will perform Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, a work you may haveheard in airports, department stores, hotel lobbies, coffee shops, bookstores, wedding chapels, waiting rooms, shopping malls and optometrist’s offices.

But this overplayed set of violin concertos stands of good chance of sounding fresh in the hands of the Miami-based Firebird ensemble. The tiny orchestra — it has, for example, just seven violins — grew out out of the highly successful chamber choir Seraphic Fire, an ensemble that has established reputation for musically adventurous, technically excellent performances under its energetic founder and artistic director Patrick Dupré Quigley.

Although South Florida is peppered with small- and mid-sized orchestras, Firebird has the unique mission of working with a choir whose repertoire reaches deeper into the past than that of most symphony orchestras. To play in a style that respects older performance practices, they use vibrato as an ornament rather than a sauce to be lavished on every note. They also employ swift bow strokes that allow the tones to die out quickly, lending a more marked, articulated sound to the orchestra and avoiding the throbbing string tone of modern ensembles. In concert, they play standing, not seated.

But the musicians don’t pursue their work as an antiquarian enterprise. They engage it as modern musicians making music for audiences today. While they do their best to respect the style of the period from which the music came, they focus — as Vivaldi and his contemporaries did ==- on producing the best, most exciting concerts they can.

“What differentiates Firebird is not playing technique, but musical intent,” said Doyle Armbrust, the orchestra’s principal violist, who flies in from Chicago for rehearsals and concerts. “I perform with other ensembles that stand for performances, or insist on minimal vibrato. This is the only group with which I play, though, that will take 40 minutes of a sound check to find the ideal placement on the stage of each instrument or singer, or that circles up, holding hands, backstage before a performance to reflect on the music about to be made.”

“Each musician has been hand-picked for their musical acumen, but also for their personality and ability to collaborate as well,” Armbrust adds. “This isn’t a ‘gig.’ It’s pure music-making.”

Quigley started the orchestra last season with a $250,000 grant from the Knight Foundation. Like the choir, the orchestra draws musicians from around the United States, who fly in for rehearsals and concerts. Last season, he said, they focused more on the basics of playing together in a cohesive way. But he said it became clear during a performance of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 that the ensemble had reached a high level of musical maturity. “We had people coming from all over the place who had never played together before,” he said. “At first it was about learning to be precise. But now we don’t have to worry about precision. It’s about how we’re going to make music together.”

This season the Firebird orchestra accompanied the choir in Handel’s Messiah and will soon do so again in his oratorio Israel in Egypt. But now Quigley says, with the orchestra hitting its stride, he wants to give it more chances to appear on its own, with performances of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 laster this season, and the Four Seasons this week, in performances in Coral Gables, Fort Lauderdale and Miami Beach.

Antonio Vivaldi

After his death in 1741, Vivaldi vanished into the history books, respected for his influence on Bach but rarely heard in the concert hall. This changed around the time of World War II, as musicologists uncovered his manuscripts and musicians began exploring his vast output. Overshadowing all of Vivaldi’s works, of course, was the Four Seasons, his 1723 set of virtuoso violin concertos, keyed to spring, summer, autumn and winter. Today Amazon lists 4,221 CDs and MP3 downloads of various versions, excerpts and transcriptions.

To take a fresh approach to this work, Quigley said he will take advantage of the orchestra’s small size to make turn-on-a-dime tempo changes and nuances of phrase that would be difficult to pull off in bigger, more sluggish ensembles. If these orchestras, for all their impressive forces, have the agility of oil tankers, his is a sports car.

And he will return to the poems that go with the concertos and the notes within each work that key the words to the music. Despite the familiarity of these concertos, many people don’t know they are written to go with four poems of unknown authorship about each season. The first movement of Winter, for example, is inspired by this verse:

To tremble from cold in the icy snow,

In the harsh breath of a horrid wind;

To run, stamping one’s feet every moment,

Our teeth chattering in the extreme cold

The text is linked tightly to the music, Quigley said, and this is often lost in performances that reduce the concertos to a blaze of rapid notes and grandiose gestures. “This piece of music is performed wrong more than any other piece in the repertoire,” he said. “Each of the pieces has a very illustrative program. It’s often played as a virtuoso series of violin pieces as opposed to instrumental text painting. It’s chamber music. It wasn’t meant for a large orchestra.”

Performing the difficult solo part will be the orchestra’s concertmaster, Adda Kridler, a young violinist who is currently assistant principal second violin of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra. “Because the baroque and classical musical language is so traditional, it is difficult to listen to with fresh ears,” she said. “My main focus has been on imagining how it would sound to a listener in Vivaldi’s time, and to really start fresh on learning the pieces.  I’m trying to emphasize both the imagery of the literal descriptions and the virtuosity of the solo violin writing.”

Over the next couple of years, Quigley plans to integrate the orchestra and Seraphic Fire choir more closely in his programs. He envisions a typical performance opening with a work for chamber orchestra, moving on to an unaccompanied choral work and ending with a major work for the combined forces of both ensembles. Among the big works for orchestra and chorus he hopes to undertake soon are the Bach passions, starting with the less frequently heard St. John’s Passion.

Although his three-year grant for the orchestra runs out next year, Quigley says he hopes the orchestra will help pay for itself through increased ticket sales, generated by the greater popularity of works for chorus and orchestra, such as Messiah, as opposed to compositions for unaccompanied chorus.

“People show up for the big ones,” he said. “There’s something about having chorus and orchestra play together. It’s why people go to Messiah. It’s why people go to Beethoven’s Ninth.”

The Firebird Chamber Orchestra performs Vivaldi’s Four Seasons 7:30 p.m. Friday at First United Methodist Church, Coral Gables, 8 p.m. Saturday at All Saints Episcopal Church, Fort Lauderdale, and 4 p.m. Jan. 17 at Temple Emanu-El, Miami Beach. Call 305-285-9060 or go to

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Mon Jan 11, 2010
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