Birds have been a frequent inspiration for composers — actual bird song in the case of Olivier Messiaen. Among others, Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote his “Lark Ascending,” and Jean Sibelius captured the undulating movement of swans flying overhead in the finale of his Symphony No. 5.
Derek Bermel, a 48-year-old composer, conductor and virtuoso clarinetist from New York City, found similar inspiration for his “Murmurations” for strings, a new work that the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra played at the Ordway Concert Hall Friday night. (The Chamber Orchestra and three other ensembles commissioned the work. It was premiered last year in Houston.)
While living in Rome not long ago, Bermel found himself enchanted by the movements of starlings. “Their stunning, geometrical displays of aviation prior to settling down for the night are a humbling sight to behold,” he says in a program note.
The way the birds would glide and dive in formation, flying as a group, then splitting into sections and forming contrapuntal patterns that sometimes pushed in opposite directions seemed, as he thought about it, to parallel the way a string orchestra plays in unison, then breaks into smaller units, sometimes just one instrument, usually the concertmaster — or an especially independent bird — acting apart from the group.
The result, structured in three movements and running about 20 minutes, is clever and imaginative. As for the title, “Murmurations,” don’t sweat it, Bermel told the audience during a preconcert discussion — “I just like the word. It has a musical quality.” For that matter, the listener didn’t need to conjure up bird imagery to enjoy the music, but it was fun to do so, imagining the trills and tremolos as the flapping of wings, or the descending unison passage at the end of the first movement as a group dive.
Bermel, who conducted the piece, writes sensitively for strings. In his second movement, the work’s emotional core, he has the lower strings play an accompaniment while the violins pour forth a long-limbed melody of quite stunning beauty, as if the birds were staging an aerial ballet. Beauty in motion is perhaps what “Murmurations” is all about. Let’s hope that one of these ensembles records the work. The audience Friday night gave it a standing ovation, a rare gesture for a new work.
Just before intermission, the evening’s guest soloist, the young German violinist Veronika Eberle, brought silvery tone and nimble technique to her performance of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 4. Concertmaster Steven Copes acted capably as leader. His stand partner, associate concertmaster Ruggero Allifranchini, held that position — vigorously — during the evening’s finale, Haydn’s Symphony No. 85.
Five wind players from the orchestra opened the concert with a lively reading of Gyorgy Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles, a droll set of folk-inspired pieces from the 1950s — what might be called avant-garde cartoon music. We thought of Roadrunner conducting in a tuxedo, then falling backward off the podium.
Michael Anthony is a longtime Minneapolis music critic.