Game of Attrition CD

Game of Attrition: Arlene Sierra, Vol. 2, is Sierra's orchestral portrait disc, released by Bridge Records to international critical acclaim.

Composer Arlene Sierra acknowledges applause from the Abravanel Hall audience following the world premiere of her Bird Symphony performed by Thierry Fischer and the Utah Symphony. Photo: Kathleen Sykes

Sierra’s “Bird Symphony” soars in a rich Utah Symphony program 

Utah Arts Review 

16 April 2022

Rick Mortensen

World premieres of orchestral works are sometimes fraught with mishap, and worse, indifference. Where a new piece is tucked away between Beethoven and Shostakovich, it is sometimes under-rehearsed, misinterpreted, or under-appreciated by an audience.

Fortunately, in Thierry Fischer and the Utah Symphony, Arlene Sierra—the orchestra’s composer-in-association—had the privilege of premiering her Bird Symphony with a conductor, ensemble and audience who know her work well.

After hearing her Nature Symphony last week and her tone poem Aquilo earlier in the season, it was thrilling to hear her apply her distinctive voice to a powerful new piece that provided a triumphant capstone to her season-long collaboration with the orchestra.

Music director Thierry Fischer programmed the Bird Symphony this week as part of a progressive musical meal that began with Haydn’s Symphony No. 11 for 20 instruments and gradually added more until culminating in the full sound of Elgar’s triumphant tone poem (Alassio) In the South. Along the way, the audience was treated to Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto featuring soloist Anthony McGill.

Sierra’s Bird Symphony shares many similarities with her Nature Symphony, including its motivic development and use of layered ostinati to imitate natural processes. In the new work, most of the motivic material came from actual bird calls, but Sierra developed them into something new, ecstatic, and far from its avian inspiration

The first movement, “Warblers,” began with an urgent energy, its source material sounding like a bird sensing danger. As the call ricocheted throughout the orchestra in a series of layers and loops, Sierra created a completely alien soundscape. It was as if we were seeing a frightening world through the warbler’s eyes or perhaps the warbler had flown us to a strange and uninhabited planet. Aided by four percussionists—including both xylophone and marimba—the orchestra built to an intense rhythmic climax.

In “Hermits and Captives,” (second movement), the orchestra responds to a recording of a Hermit Thrush call with transcriptions of birdsong from finches and canaries. Over a drone in the cello and mournful tones in the piano and double bass, a plaintive melody in the flute rose and spread to the strings, where it dissipated into pizzicato. As in the second movement of the Nature Symphony, Sierra used sustained low notes to create a dark, atmospheric mood. In the Bird Symphony those notes are a slowed-down bird call, which spread to horns and low brass, creating a powerful sense of motion, and transforming the movement from merely atmospheric to something more substantial and profound.

Driven forward by the marimba, Sierra’s trademark ostinati were at their most mesmerizing in the third movement “Female Birdsong.”

The finale “Utahraptor” created an infectious rhythm that took the audience on a primordial journey from birdsong to whatever noise its dinosaur ancestor might have made. The rhythmic motives were particularly effective when they spread to the bassoons, creating a unique and delightful sound, and led to an exciting, unique climax.

About a third of the audience gave Bird Symphony a standing ovation, which is quite a feat for a 25-minute long, sometimes discordant piece.

Click here for more information about Bird Symphony

Composer Arlene Sierra with Utah Symphony Music Director Thierry Fischer after the premiere of Bird Symphony. Photo: G V Sierra