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On Wings of...er, Birds

New York
Starr Theater, Alice tully Hall
08/11/2012 -  
Olivier Messiaen: Le Merle noir
Jonathan Harvey: Bird Concerto with Pianosong (North American premiere)
Franz Schubert: Octet, D. 803

Claire Chase (Flute), Jacob Greenberg (Piano), Joanna MacGregor (Piano)
International Contemporary Ensemble, Jayce Ogren (Conductor)

ICE (© Liz Linder)

The ongoing festival of bird music went overbird...er, overboard last night in Alice Tully Hall. Yes, the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) played orchestral bird sounds. But we also had the sounds of birds from loudspeakers on the side of the stage, as well as electronically generated birds from the piano, digital birds remixed from the back of the Starr Theater...

And just if you didn’t get the point, the large reception area in front of Starr Theater was enveloped with the sounds of birds from the ceiling.

One imagines that those with memories of Avian Flu or with allergies to bird droppings would have flown out of Alive Tully Hall before the concert even started.

I flew out before the end of the concert for reasons listed below. But the first half was a true enchantment, beginning with Olivier Messiaen’s Le Merle noir (The Blackbird), written for flute and piano.

Claire Chase and Jacob Greenberg, both of ICE, started with (what I suppose is) a real blackbird warble, for Messiaen took huge pride in his verisimilitude to the calls of nature. From here, piano and flute, like a pair of peacocks, strutted and duetted and played some charming music which took off from the blackbird into other high and lush auras.

But it was the second work, the American premiere of Jonathan Harvey’s Bird Concerto with Pianosong that was–only one word will fit–dazzling. The beginning was almost impossible to hear without jumping up and asking for more. From the large external loudspeakers, all kinds of real bird songs leaped up. At the piano, Joanna MacGregor played treble warblings with her right hand, while her left hand sampled/synthesized digital bird sounds. As the music continued, the real bird sounds became electronically diddled from a computer at the back of the theater, Ms. MacGregor continued with wonderful runs up and down the piano and while increasing the sampling. And the 17 players of ICE made grand sounds under the baton of American conductor-composer Jayce Ogren imitating soaring, ascending and descending flights of birds.

J. Ogren (© Roger Mastroianni)

The wonder of it all was that not one measure, not one second, not a single squawk, cuckoo, shriek, lilt, hoot, twitter, chirp or chirrup went wasted. Mr. Harvey once wrote that he had the sounds of 40 California birds, but not even Audubon or Messiaen might have counted all the sounds.

One imagines walking in a rainforest hearing these sounds, but having walked through several rainforests, be assured is imagination. Whatever croaks and warbles one hears are quickly drowned out by the slapping of mosquitos and cursing at flies.

But Mr. Harvey, whose adoration of Messiaen has been shown in several pieces, has outdone nature. He certainly has not attempted to outdo God. But his combination of gorgeous piano work by Ms MacGregor, pinpoint work by ICE and the glories of both real birds and electronic birds is simply giving God a lesson.

Basically, Mr. Harvey was saying, “Birds are fine to begin with. But I have seen the Milky Way, and all those millions of starpoints and lights have now transformed into birdcalls

It was overwhelming, a literal joyful noise (as the Good Book has it). So joyful that I wasn’t able to stand in the warble-filled auditorium at intermission. Instead, I threw off my responsibility to hear the Schubert Octet and walked over to Central Park to stroll among the hills, the bushes, to find (in that little Shakespearian couplet) “shallow rivers, to whose falls/ Melodious birds sing madrigals.”

Harry Rolnick



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