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Birdfoot Hops the Night Train to Frenchmen
by Joe Shriner
On Thursday, the familiar reverberations of traditional jazz quintets, guitar-slinging buskers, and curbside brass bands on Marigny’s most dynamic street are going to have some new sounds to contend with. In one venue among the babble of barflies, fourteen artists will be offering classical works inspired by clouds and trains, as well as some serious counterpoint.
Birdfoot Festival presents “Night Train" at Snug Harbor Jazz Bistro, the first pair of four featured concerts, taking on two radically different sets of chamber music. At 8 pm, Birdfoot artists will be presenting Kaija Saariaho’s textured “Cloud Trio” for string trio and Steve Reich’s seminal “Different Trains” for string quartet, taped speech, and sound effects. At 10 pm, they will present that vaunted paragon of baroque composition: J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations.”
Making its Frenchmen debut, “Cloud Trio” is a contemporary work by award-winning Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. Comprised of four layered movements, this piece was written in the French Alps, inspired by the composer’s gaze into the vast sky beyond the mountains. In her program notes, Saariaho does not volunteer which cloud shapes gave her inspiration, encouraging listeners to reach their own conclusions.
Celebrated American composer Steve Reich’s “Different Trains,” first performed in 1988, is probably the most famous and compelling of his works. As a child of divorced parents living in New York and Los Angeles, Reich spent much of the first years of World War II travelling across the country by train. Reich, who is Jewish, later observed that if he had lived in Europe when he was a child, he would have been riding trains to concentration camps.
Made up of three separate movements, Reich’s composition explores different journeys: “America - before the war,” “Europe - during the war,” and “After the war.” Using spoken phrases from taped conversations with the nanny accompanying him on his trips, an American railroad employee, and archival recordings of Holocaust survivors, Reich extracts phrases and turns them into musical passages that underscore the driving rhythm from the strings.
The second set presents one rather prodigious work published 247 years earlier. The cult of personality surrounding J.S. Bach kindles not just excessive extolling by musicians and critics repeating observations of his sonic perfection and astonishing career, but it makes the composer so easy to disparage. There have been volumes written about his genius and no fewer blog entries and articles about how overrated and even boring his music is. Whatever your opinion, one thing never debated is his inescapable presence in music.
Clocking in at around 75 minutes if uninterrupted from beginning to end, Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” is no less overhyped and unduly derided as the composer. This work is made up of 30 variations on an enticing aria and was written to help lull an insomniac Count to sleep at night. The piece is more than just “furniture music,” though. Bach was able to achieve something in these variations that allows listeners to actively or passively engage as they see fit.
Much of it is in the presentation, of course, and to witness a performance of the “Goldberg Variations” live in an intimate setting lends itself close and direct audience participation. The presentation at Snug Harbor will feature 12 Birdfoot artists, including both pianists Prach Boondiskulchok and Danny Driver, as well as three string trios presenting string arrangements of variations.
Each set costs $15 for general admission, and $10 for students with a valid ID required at the door. Tickets are on sale through Snug Harbor Bistro’s website or by calling (504) 949-0696.
For additional information on this and two remaining festival events, visit the Birdfoot website or call 504-451-6578. Also, be sure to stick with the NOLA Defender for continuing coverage.
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