Sometimes a program with no immediately apparent theme turns out to have one if you listen in a particular way. On paper, the program presented by the Bowdoin International Music Festival at Studzinski Recital Hall on Friday looked as disparate as could be: Ravel’s “Sonatine” (1905) was the curtain-raiser, with Robert Sirota’s “Birds of Paradise” (2008) filling out the first half, and Schubert’s Piano Trio No. 1 (D. 898, 1828) after the intermission.

But in context, each piece seemed a snapshot of musical language in transition, sometimes subtly, sometimes more strikingly, and in that sense, the program as a whole gelled as a concise overview of the musical ferment of the last two centuries, with a focus on evolution rather than revolution.

The Ravel, for example, is structurally conservative, adhering (mostly) to the conventions of sonata form. But its substance tells a different tale. Ravel, following his own instincts, was prodding classical music listeners of the early 20th century to reconsider notions of tonality and harmonic propriety in ways that early jazz listeners were beginning to do.

Granted, we don’t normally think of the “Sonatine” as one of Ravel’s jazz-tinged works; that distinction is reserved for his music of the 1920s, including the Violin Sonata, with its central “Blues” movement, and the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand, with its overtly jazzy rhythms and harmonies.

But on Friday, pianist Douglas Humpherys put a subtle spotlight on the almost casual dissonances that characterize Ravel’s nascent style, and point toward the jazz influences that would become increasingly important in his work. It was not a flawless account, but the occasional slips were not enough to distract from Humpherys’ masterly melding of this bewitching score.

Sirota, who was born in New York in 1949, is a prolific composer and has a Maine connection as well: He has composed much of his music, including “Birds of Paradise,” at his home in Searsmont.


Sirota’s musical language is personal and undogmatic, in the sense that instead of aligning himself with any of the competing contemporary styles, he follows his own internal musical compass. In the case of “Birds of Paradise,” he steps outside the style wars and embraces the time-honored notion that musical language, whatever the accent, can profit from embracing the sounds of nature – in this case, bird calls.

His predecessors in this naturalistic approach include the 16th-century composer Clément Jannequin, whose “Le chant des oiseaux” wove bird calls into a Renaissance texture, through Beethoven, who incorporated birdsong into the “Pastorale” Symphony, to Olivier Messiaen, whose fascination with exotic birds was entwined with his mystical view of creation (both God’s and his own).

“Birds of Paradise” sounds nothing like those works, yet the impulses and contours of birdsong drive every bar of this work’s flute, clarinet and piano writing, with an ingenuity that renders issues of consonance, dissonance and stylistic labels beside the point.

Composed for the Webster Trio (which released a recording of it last year), the piece was taken up in 2013 by flutist Linda Chesis, who directs the Cooperstown Summer Music Festival, and who gave it a vital performance here with clarinetist David Valbuena and pianist Peter Basquin.

Chesis had the idea of using film from the Cornell Ornithology Lab’s Birds of Paradise Project, which documents the flamenco-like mating dance of these colorful birds, artfully edited to match Sirota’s vivid score. It brought touches of humor and sheer choreographic wonder to the performance.

It may be difficult to think of Schubert in terms of stylistic evolution. But though he spoke the same musical language as Beethoven, his Trio No. 1 is a reminder that Schubert’s melodic sweep, and sense of scale, pointed toward a new world that would blossom into the grandeur of Mahler and Bruckner. Violinist Janet Sung, cellist Steven Doane and pianist Yong Hi Moon gave it a passionate, finely balanced performance that not only illuminated Schubert’s stylistic roots, but his influence on his successors as well.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

Twitter: kozinn

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.