Unusual 'Scrooge' is a triumph
By Richard Dyer, Globe Staff, December 19, 2005
Firebird Ensemble, at: Emmanuel Church, Saturday
The holiday season's most offbeat musical event, Firebird Ensemble's performance of Jon Deak's ''The Passion of Scrooge," proved to be one of the most captivating. Baritone Aaron Engebreth turned in one of the most brilliant performances of the season Saturday afternoon in Emmanual Church, and so did the Firebird Ensemble, augmented for the occasion by seven additional instrumentalists.
Deak, a bass player in the New York Philharmonic, has created an astonishing boozy fruitcake in ''The Passion of Scrooge" -- it's as if he crossed Peter Maxwell Davies' tart music-theater piece ''Eight Songs for a Mad King" with a sugar plum by Leroy Anderson. The energy of the music is prodigious, and it swiftly shuttles among many disparate styles with disarming aplomb.
A solo singer serves as the narrator of Dickens's famous tale and takes the roles of all the characters -- male, female, alive, and dead. Each of the characters has an instrumental counterpart in the chamber ensemble, and the musicians also sing, mutter, click their tongues, and create howling-wind effects. Percussionist Aaron Trant seemed to especially enjoy clanking the chains of Marley's ghost.
Engebreth's performance was a triumph, resonantly sung over the entire range of his voice, vigorously and variously characterized. The playing of the instrumentalists, energetically coordinated by conductor Chris Kim, was first-rate, and the musicians really got into their multitasking.
David Russell began the afternoon with a lively performance of some ingenious variations on ''Lo, How A Rose E'er Blooming" for solo cello by Mark Summer, and there was a sensational encore after ''Scrooge." ''A Not So Traditional Christmas Medley" for strings by Cameron Wilsonpresents familiar melodies in alien but amusing styles -- ''Let It Snow" as a tango, ''Away in a Manger" as country and western song. A sinister gypsy version of ''Jingle Bells" sounded as if the one-horse open sleigh were headed straight for the castle of Count Dracula. This, too, was superbly played.
In the free-spirited Firebird Ensemble, Boston has its equivalent to such prominent, genre-busting new-music ensembles as eighth blackbird or Alarm Will Sound. Firebird's next concert, in February, will be performed at the barbecue restaurant Redbones; it's called ''Meat the Composer."