Birdfoot Festival stages chamber music concerts, classes

In its earliest years, chamber music was played privately for royalty and the elite. Even when it moved into concert halls, access was limited to those who could afford the luxury.

A New Orleans-based organization is seeking to make chamber music accessible to the average person. In keeping with that mission, the Birdfoot Chamber Music Festival is presenting a week’s worth of chamber music in various local venues at affordable prices.

From Sunday, May 19, through May 25, the Birdfoot Festival will offer five concerts. Events range from a free performance and interviews with Gwen Thompkins, host of “Music Inside Out” on WWNO, at the Jewish Community Center, to a $90-per-plate dinner concert at an antebellum plantation; other concerts are $10 to $25. Tickets for paid events are on sale now.

Taking its name from the shape of the Mississippi River Delta, the Birdfoot Festival was the brainchild of violinist Jenna Sherry, a New Orleans native living in London, who serves as the festival’s artistic director.

Back home for a few weeks and staying with her mother, Tracey Sherry, the festival’s executive director, she spoke about how the festival — now in its second year — originated, and what it hopes to accomplish.

“We are trying to bring chamber music out of the stuffy, formal concert halls and into smaller, more intimate venues where the community can be more in touch with the musicians and vice versa,” Jenna Sherry said. “Chamber music needs to be experienced live and appreciated as a living, breathing art. It’s not a dead art by any means.”

Elaborating on the festival’s origin, she said, “I always found it sort of puzzling that in such a musically artistic city as New Orleans, there was nothing like this, other than a few touring chamber groups that come through here every year.”

As a classically trained violinist with a lifelong passion for chamber music, she said, “One of the fastest ways young musicians grow and develop is through chamber music. I’m really trying to encourage that in the city.”

Based on the attendance figures for last year’s inaugural Birdfoot Festival, Shery said, “I think there’s definitely an audience here for it.”

Seventeen artists representing four continents are slated to perform in this year’s festival. The instrumentation includes five violins (plus Sherry), three violas and cellos, two pianos and a clarinet. Guest artists from the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra are Jihyun Kim on cello and Jaren Philleo on oboe.

Musical selections for the festival’s events span a period of more than 270 years, from Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” (1741) to the more contemporary “Cloud Trio” (2010), by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho.

Jenna Sherry is equally proud of the mentoring program that is an essential component of the festival. By matching aspiring high school students with established artists, “We are aiming to give them opportunities to get coaching locally instead of having to go out of town,” she said.

Applications for this year’s festival have been triple those for 2012.

“This music is so incredibly vital and timeless,” Sherry said. “It’s such a pleasure to bring it more into the public eye. Some people who saw this last year became almost instant converts. They told me, ‘Wow! I never heard this before. This is fantastic’ It’s fantastic for me too, and I’m really looking forward to doing it again.”

For more information call (504) 491-6578 or visit http://birdfootcmf.org/. For tickets go to http://birdfootcmf.org/tickets-2/