Symphony Spin-Off: The Lyrebird Ensemble, January 21 at the Figge Art Museum Print
Music - Feature Stories
Written by Mike Schulz   
Wednesday, 11 January 2012 12:55

The Lyrebird Ensemble's Lillian Lau and Ellen HuntingtonNot long after meeting through their participation in the Quad City Symphony Orchestra, second flutist Ellen Huntington and principal harpist Lillian Lau decided to form their own two-person ensemble. Yet while they knew they had more than enough flute-and-harp repertoire to sustain a professional partnership, what they didn’t have was a name.

“We were looking for something that kind of brought out the flute and the harp,” says Huntington. “And the sound of the flute is often associated with a bird, and a predecessor of the harp was the lyre, and we discovered there’s actually a real bird called the lyrebird, so we thought that was perfect.

“The lyrebird,” she continues, “is an Australian bird that’s said to be able to imitate any sound it hears. Actually, if you go on the Internet, you can see videos of it imitating, like, a camera and a chainsaw.”

Needless to say, the sounds created by Huntington’s and Lau’s Lyrebird Ensemble – which will perform in a January 21 concert at the Figge Art Museum – are nowhere near as uncharacteristic as the rev of a chainsaw emanating from a bird. But for those anticipating merely sedate, lulling chamber music from this flute and harp combo, what Huntington and Lau instead deliver might prove just as surprising.

Reviewing the Lyrebird Ensemble’s 2010 debut CD Taking Flight: Music for Flute & Harp, a compilation of compositions from the modern era, Flutist Quarterly raved, “These pieces, while intricate and well-developed by a musician’s standpoint, are also incredibly fun to listen to, and such a treat to discover. Rendered so beautifully by the Lyrebird Ensemble’s virtuosic, spirited playing, I am left wanting more, and thrilled by the possibility of learning more through their ears.”

And describing the musicians’ January 21 program at the Figge, Lau says their repertoire that evening will include “the widest variety of pieces that work well together, and with quite a bit of modern effects. I think people might be expecting really pretty, laid-back, slow pieces, but actually, these pieces are quite exciting.”

Ellen HuntingtonAs the Chicagoans explain in a recent phone interview, the flutist and harpist first met when Hong Kong native Lau joined the Quad City Symphony in 2006, four years after Huntington’s debut in the orchestra.

“But the reason we started playing together,” says Huntington, “is that I was working on my doctorate at Northwestern, and there were a couple of pieces I wanted to do with the harp. Lillian also has a background as a percussionist, and I think she plays with really great rhythm, so we got together to play them. And we worked so well together that we thought we’d make it a bit more of a regular thing, instead of just getting together once in a while to play a piece.”

“Once we started our ensemble,” says Lau, “Ellen discovered this big list of repertoire, and we would get together and go through the music, and see what worked for us – what we thought would be interesting for an audience, and fun to play, and challenging to play. I mean, we’re constantly discovering new music.”

Their partnership led to the Lyrebird Ensemble playing in, among other events, the Lincoln Park Cultural Center’s “Unusual Classical Delights” concert, the Wisconsin Flute Festival, and the national conference of the American Harp Society. Yet while their repertoire extended through centuries of compositions, what Huntington and Lau found they responded to most were works composed between 1890 and the present day, 14 of which eventually wound up on Taking Flight.

“Flute and harp actually play together a lot,” says Huntington. “There’s some major repertoire for those two instruments together. And what we really liked [about the 1890-to-the-present era] were that a lot of the pieces were very melodic, and had elements of nature – the pieces were either inspired by nature or evoked natural sounds. There’s one piece by a New Zealand composer [Gareth Farr] which is all about waterfalls. And another one is called ‘The Seaside Reflection.’”

“And also,” adds Lau, “most of these pieces, it turns out, haven’t been recorded much, and some of them are newly discovered. So in that way, we think we have something really special to offer.”

Lillian LauSeveral of these Taking Flight inclusions will be performed in the Lyrebird Ensemble’s Figge concert, which will be held in the gallery housing the museum’s new traveling exhibit of children’s book art, titled Fins & Feathers.

“When I heard that this concert would be at the Figge museum,” says Lau, “I was really excited. Of course, we’re used to performing on a stage. But I think being in a gallery – just being surrounded by art, and having the audience so close instead of being so far away – will make it more interesting for the audience.”

“And since, with our CD, we have so many pieces that are inspired by nature,” adds Huntington, “we thought we could maybe enhance the Fins & Feathers exhibit a little bit by playing some of those pieces. So we have a piece that’s called ‘The Swans & the Squirrels’; we’re actually opening the program with that. We have a piece called ‘The Song of the Lark,’ which was written by a Wisconsin composer [Charles Rochester Young].”

“What’s also fun,” says Lau, “is that I get to use a lot of special techniques on the harp. For example, in one piece, I use a piece of paper in the strings to create a more percussive effect. And then in an Irish piece we’re doing, I actually tap on the soundboard to make it sound like an Irish drum.”

“Unless you’re a flutist or a harpist who’s really looked at this sort of repertoire,” says Huntington, “you probably will not have heard of any of these pieces, or any of the composers, even. But they’re all really effective, and the modern effects are used in a really interesting and exciting way.”

“The pieces are really unconventional,” adds Lau with a laugh, “but it’s not scary modern music.”

 

A concert in the Quad City Symphony Orchestra’s “Signature Series,” the Lyrebird Ensemble performs at the Figge Art Museum on Saturday, January 21, at 8 p.m. Admission is $18 for adults and $7 for students, and tickets are available by calling (563)322-7276 or visiting QCSymphony.com.

For more information on the Lyrebird Ensemble, visit LyrebirdEnsemble.com.