Bird Symphony was commissioned by the Utah Symphony as part of Arlene Sierra’s role as Composer in Association for the 2021-2022 season, with support from Composer in Association Sponsors Patricia Richards and Bill Nichols, and the National Endowment for the Arts.  


Composer Arlene Sierra acknowledges applause from the Abravanel Hall audience following the world premiere of her Bird Symphony at Abravanel Hall, 15 April 2022 Photos: G V Sierra and Kathleen Sykes

Score excerpt

Bird Symphony (2021) Programme Note:

1. Warblers

2. Hermits and Captives

3. Female Birdsong

4. Utahraptor

Bird Symphony is Sierra’s most recent large-scale orchestral work since Nature Symphony, commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and the BBC Philharmonic in 2017. A milestone in a series of pieces based on ideas from from the natural world, including Colmena (2008), Butterflies Remember a Mountain (2013), and Urban Birds (2014), Nature Symphony explored the mechanics and processes of natureas the basis for Sierra’s compositional approach, rather than offering a simple reflection or meditation. Bird Symphony takes this technical focus into birdsong, where the composer’s transcriptions from field recordings become structural building blocks that are integral to the symphony’s four contrasting movements. Additionally Sierra draws upon material from her solo piano album Birds and Insects, Book 2 (2015) and new material shared with Birds and Insects, Book 3, a work in progress that focuses on female birdsong – a burgeoning area of study by women ornithologists working today.

The first movement, Warblers, employs transcribed songs of both New and Old World warblers, namely the Black and White Warbler and the Sedge Warbler. The longest of the four movements, Warblers opens with the Black and White Warbler’s song in the upper registers of the orchestra. The song undergoes a thorough transformation in dialogue with other warbler calls, by turns reflective and ecstatic, until the full body of the orchestra announces the previously miniature, high-pitched Black and White Warbler song in all registers, with the full force of its power.

The second movement Hermits and Captives has the orchestra accompanied by a field recording of the Hermit Thrush, a bird that can be heard but is rarely seen. Composed during the period of Covid lockdown in the composer’s current home city of London in Spring 2020, the movement also features transcriptions of the songs of captive birds including canaries and finches, alongside imagined birds from Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe. As in Respighi’s Pines of Rome from 1924, recorded birdsong becomes a time capsule that preserves through technology what is continually being lost in our era of environmental crisis.

The third movement Female Birdsong employs transcribed songs from female birds, long ignored in the historically male-dominated field of ornithology. While traditionally bird song has been viewed as primarily a male trait, research shows that female song occurs in many songbird species and likely existed in the ancestors of all modern songbirds. Calls and songs from female Black-bellied Wrens, Venezuelan Troupials, and Magpie-larks feature prominently in the movement.

The final movement Utahraptor is an imagining of the eponymous feathered dinosaur, exploring both its avian and saurian characteristics. Birdsong fragments from earlier movements, particularly the Hermit Thrush, are recast in music that has an altogether different quality, transforming from elusive songbird to looming predator.

Bird Symphony was first performed by the Utah Symphony, Thierry Fischer, Music Director, at Abravanel Hall, Salt Lake City on April 15th, 2022.

©2022 Shawn G. Miller

To order scores and/or hire materials for Bird Symphony, please click here 

Composer Arlene Sierra acknowledges applause from the Abravanel Hall audience following the second performance of her Bird Symphony Photo: G V Sierra

“What I like about her music is that everything is suggested; it’s not a statement,” Fischer said.  “For example: if you see a bird flying, it’s so beautiful, and it creates a kind of emotion. But the bird doesn’t fly to create an emotion. The bird flies because that’s what a bird does.”

“It’s a little bit like that in Arlene’s music, “ adds Fischer. “She’s not writing the Bird Symphony to make people cry. She writes because it’s her way to be inspired by nature and by insects and all that. And then it creates beauty, but she’s not writing to create beauty. This aspect of both the suggestive and what’s behind it is, to me as a French impressionist conductor, absolutely thrilling and super motivating.”

– Thierry Fischer, as interviewed in Utah Arts Review, "Arlene Sierra’s “Bird Symphony” to take flight with Utah Symphony"



Sierra’s “Bird Symphony” soars in a rich Utah Symphony program

World premieres of orchestral works are sometimes fraught with mishap, and worse, indifference. Where a new piece is tucked away between Beethoven and Shostakovich, it is sometimes under-rehearsed, misinterpreted, or under-appreciated by an audience.

Fortunately, in Thierry Fischer and the Utah Symphony, Arlene Sierra—the orchestra’s composer-in-association—had the privilege of premiering her Bird Symphony with a conductor, ensemble and audience who know her work well.

After hearing her Nature Symphony last week and her tone poem Aquilo earlier in the season, it was thrilling to hear her apply her distinctive voice to a powerful new piece that provided a triumphant capstone to her season-long collaboration with the orchestra.

Music director Thierry Fischer programmed the Bird Symphony this week as part of a progressive musical meal that began with Haydn’s Symphony No. 11 for 20 instruments and gradually added more until culminating in the full sound of Elgar’s triumphant tone poem (Alassio) In the South. Along the way, the audience was treated to Nielsen’s Clarinet Concerto featuring soloist Anthony McGill.

Sierra’s Bird Symphony shares many similarities with her Nature Symphony, including its motivic development and use of layered ostinati to imitate natural processes. In the new work, most of the motivic material came from actual bird calls, but Sierra developed them into something new, ecstatic, and far from its avian inspiration

The first movement, “Warblers,” began with an urgent energy, its source material sounding like a bird sensing danger. As the call ricocheted throughout the orchestra in a series of layers and loops, Sierra created a completely alien soundscape. It was as if we were seeing a frightening world through the warbler’s eyes or perhaps the warbler had flown us to a strange and uninhabited planet. Aided by four percussionists—including both xylophone and marimba—the orchestra built to an intense rhythmic climax.

In “Hermits and Captives,” (second movement), the orchestra responds to a recording of a Hermit Thrush call with transcriptions of birdsong from finches and canaries. Over a drone in the cello and mournful tones in the piano and double bass, a plaintive melody in the flute rose and spread to the strings, where it dissipated into pizzicato. As in the second movement of the Nature Symphony, Sierra used sustained low notes to create a dark, atmospheric mood. In the Bird Symphony those notes are a slowed-down bird call, which spread to horns and low brass, creating a powerful sense of motion, and transforming the movement from merely atmospheric to something more substantial and profound.

Driven forward by the marimba, Sierra’s trademark ostinati were at their most mesmerizing in the third movement “Female Birdsong.”

The finale “Utahraptor” created an infectious rhythm that took the audience on a primordial journey from birdsong to whatever noise its dinosaur ancestor might have made. The rhythmic motives were particularly effective when they spread to the bassoons, creating a unique and delightful sound, and led to an exciting, unique climax.

About a third of the audience gave Bird Symphony a standing ovation, which is quite a feat for a 25-minute long, sometimes discordant piece.

– Rick Mortensen, Utah Arts Review

To order scores and/or hire materials for Bird Symphony, please click here