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Birdfoot Festival

   Branching Out   

      By Kyle MacMillan

American Ensemble

Photo by Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee

Most people associate New Orleans with jazz, blues, and Cajun music, but the venerable southern city also boasts its fair share of classical music, including a fast-growing chamber-music scene. The latter found a welcome new catalyst in the seven-year-old Birdfoot Festival, which this past year presented a 10-day line-up and two artist residencies–a total of twenty-two concerts.

Violinist Jenna Sherry, a 32-year-old New Orleans native who resides in London, established the festival in 2011 along with her mother, Tracey Sherry, a co-founder of the Greater New Orleans Youth Orchestra, plus former board president Mark Growdon. “We thought, there’s nothing like this in the region,” said Jenna, who serves as artistic director. “Despite New Orleans’ cultural stature, there’s no chamber-music festival, there’s no classical-music festival, there’s nothing nearer than Sarasota, so let’s do it.”

But Jenna wasn’t interesting in simply building another conventional chamber music festival—she wanted to do something experimental that would capitalize on the city’s multicultural musical heritage and distinctive tradition of intimate clubs and venues. “So, the idea was take what New Orleans does best, bring in chamber music and let’s see what happens,” she said.

Festival concerts are held in a rotating series of venues like the black-box theater at the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans and Café Istanbul, a multifaceted performance hall in the Faubourg Marigny Historic District. Audiences range in size from 60 to nearly 200 and vary demographically according to the hall or neighborhood where performances are held. What holds true, though, across the festival’s events, is that many attendees are chamber-music novices, and 40 to 50 percent are below the age of 40. “I find that people are much less concerned with genres in New Orleans, and are much more open to hearing a really good performance whatever it might be,” Jenna said.

Although some concerts offer straightforward classical programs, most are based around a theme and draw from a mix of musical periods and genres. New Orleans 300: Creole Contradanzas, for example, will celebrate the 300th anniversary of New Orleans and pay tribute to the African and Spanish roots of jazz. Included will be works by Paquito D’Rivera, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Wynton Marsalis, Jelly Roll Morton, and Maurice Ravel.

The festival’s annual budget has grown from $28,000 to $155,000, but the only staff member who gets paid is the festival’s half-time operations manager. A top priority is finding more funds to boost artist fees and provide salaries for Jenna and Tracey, who serves as a full-time executive director. “We need to be able hire staff for this festival to be sustainable in the long term,” Tracey said. But with the help of a dedicated board and enthusiastic volunteers, she and Sherry are making this challenging management structure work for now. “We have very complementary experience, and we really enjoy working together,” Tracey said. “And it’s been a lot of fun.”

© 2018 Chamber Music Magazine