Firebird closes season with dynamic American program

By David Fleshler

John Adams' "Shaker Loops" was performed by the Firebird Chamber Orchestra Wednesday night in Miami.

There are lots of recordings of Shaker Loops, the high-energy rush of sound from John Adams’ early, minimalist period. But live performances are rare in South Florida, and you can catch one in the next few days by the Firebird Chamber Orchestra, which opened its final season program Wednesday night in Miami.

The orchestra, a companion to the choir Seraphic Fire, performed Shaker Loops at St. Jude Melkite Catholic Church on an American program called “Dances of the Americas: The Pulse of a New World,” which will be repeated through Sunday at venues throughout South Florida. The opening-night audience was surprisingly small, with just around fifty people in a church that looked like it could seat four times that number.

Music director Patrick Dupré Quigley, showing no signs of disappointment at the size of the audience, was an excellent guide as usual, giving brief remarks that whetted one’s appetite for the music. For the Adams work, he even invited audience members to let their minds wander during the music, saying this sort of work can best be appreciated by letting your attention ebb and flow as the musical patterns change.

The performance was taut and athletic. This is music that should be heard live to appreciate just how difficult it must be to perform. The bows on the instruments flew as they played Adams’ fast patterns of notes. It’s amazing how much sound a small string orchestra could generate, and with such a variety of textures.

The church’s acoustic, which creates a soft glow around the tones of a choir, is less flattering for a string orchestra, making the sound a bit mushy and unfocused. But Quigley whipped up the excitement in the orchestra, and the musicians responded with sharp, percussive attacks that brought fine clarity and energy to the performance. The eerie “Hymning Slews” section was evocative and transparent, full of ghostly sliding notes and harmonics. Throughout there was a unity of interpretation and crispness of playing in the hypnotic patterns of notes, and the musicians brought the work to a joyful climax.

The concert opened with “Hoe-Down” from Aaron Copland’s Rodeo, one of his best-known works, as arranged by Copland for string orchestra. Here too Copland’s earthy rhythms were undone a bit by the acoustic. But the musicians plunged in with enthusiasm, and Quigley led a lilting, strongly marked performance.

Visions and Miracles, a 1997 work by the American composer Christopher Theofanidis, is a three-movement composition originally for string quartet that has a wide-open, American sound similar to that of Copland. There were lots of open strings, strong rhythms and repeated figures. He uses the simplest materials, most strikingly in the second movement, in which the entire section is built around repeated major scales that come together in increasing complexity in a slow crescendo that was expertly achieved by Quigley and the players.

The Firebird Chamber Orchestra will repeat the performance 7:30 p.m. Thursday at St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church, Boca Raton; 7:30 p.m. Friday at First United Methodist Church, Coral Gables; 8 p.m. Saturday at All Saints Episcopal Church, Ft. Lauderdale; and 4 p.m. Sunday at Miami Beach Community Church.; 305-285-9060.

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Thu Apr 19, 2012
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