As the rain pattered away on a Wednesday afternoon, four young men sat poised with their instruments in an artist’s studio on Julia Street while a fifth spoke to them in a language only they could understand.
“Da da dee da da,” he said, waving his hands in the air as they all nodded in agreement before bursting forth with a jolting melodic blast.
It was the second of four days these high school students met with their mentor, Boston violinist Kristopher Tong, to practice at the Steve Martin Gallery as part of the Birdfoot Festival’s annual three-week-long mentoring program, held at local art galleries to spark creative connections.
Named for the branching footprint of the Mississippi River Delta, the Birdfoot Festival was created in 2011 by local violinist Jenna Sherry to revitalize chamber music in New Orleans.
“I went to London for my studies and it was just so eye-opening. People my age were attending chamber music concerts. It was a cool thing to do,” Sherry said, explaining that instead of formal halls, concerts were held in hip, intimate venues accompanying a bar where people could socialize with others, and with the artists.
“I went to my mom and said, ‘Why isn’t this happening here in New Orleans?”
Fortunately, Jenna’s mom, Tracey Sherry had just the skills to answer the call — 20 years of nonprofit management experience.
The Birdfoot Festival was born.
The festival, held in late spring, featured 10 days of live performances by internationally acclaimed artists that perform what the festival calls “youthful, rule-bending” chamber music in trendy venues throughout the city.
“Chamber music is a part of our New Orleans culture, our history,” Jenna said. “Jazz actually came out of a mix of classical and ethnic music. We think of jazz and blues as so different from classical but they aren’t, which is why you’ll find that so many of our local performers here play both.”
The second part of the festival is the Birdfoot Mentoring Program, designed to help mold the next generation of local chamber musicians.
The mentors for this year’s 11 chamber groups were pulled from 14 professional musicians here to perform for the festival. This year’s artists hail from throughout the world, from London to Chicago, Thailand to Oklahoma.
For the group gathered at the Steve Martin Gallery, Loyola junior Kieron Oliver says they are looking to Tong to help them with technical aspects of their performance, as well as capturing what the composer had in mind.
“What we’re trying to discover is what Lalo Schifrin was trying to say about New Orleans when he wrote this piece,” Oliver said.
As the mentoring part of Birdfoot grows, space has become an issue.
“Our festival in residence this year is at the Contemporary Arts Center, which is an exciting space to play in, but we needed more room for the practices so we went looking nearby. What we found were all these galleries on Julia Street and we thought how great would that be for students?”
Sherry said the response from gallery owners was overwhelmingly positive.
“I’d say we are using 70 percent of all the galleries this year on three of four blocks of Julia Street. We even had more galleries wanting the students to come play than we had students. It’s all just so exciting.”
For more information, visit birdfootfestival.org.