Last Saturday's concert in Dublin by the Crash Ensemble was the group's first in a number of months, since the beginning of the summer. And it was a special one in a few ways.
First the personnel involved. Always looking to extend its scope and explore new avenues, Crash here enlisted the diverse and complimentary talents of American soprano Dawn Upshaw and traditional Irish sean-nós singer Iarla Ó'Lionáird in a concert focussing on music for ensemble and solo vocalist.
Upshaw is known to many in her native USA and internationally as a soprano of outstanding talent and a warm temperament. Through her regular opera appearances at the Met and in the major opera houses of Europe, she has performed, on the one hand, in all the major Mozart roles and, on the other hand, in many major contemporary works, such as Saariaho's L'Amour de loin.
Iarla Ó'Lionáird, a traditional Irish singer and member of the fusion group Afro-Celt Sound System, has a long career behind him in Ireland. Recent years have seen him work on a number of pieces with Irish composer and Crash's artistic director Donnacha Dennehy. In a similar way to Upshaw, Ó’Lionáird baths artistically in a number of different musical streams.
Then there was the venue. Built in the 17th Century as a home for retired soldiers (somewhat like Les Invalides in Paris), and considered to be the best surviving example in Ireland of a building from that era, the former Royal Hospital in Kilmainham now houses the Irish Museum of Modern Art, and from time to time opens up its Great Hall, which is adjoined to an old chapel, for concerts. And a more aptly atmospheric place for Saturday's concert could hardly have been found.
Entering by way of the wide courtyard, moonlit under a dark sky, you came first into the chamber of an old chapel. An intricate stained glass window led your eyes to the ceiling overhead, a lavish layer of rococo mouldings. Inside the Great Hall, the high ceiling is flanked high above by life-size aged oil paintings of nobility from the period; men and women in extravagant costume, all wigs, bodices, flowing locks, capes, canes and so on. Sitting down you couldn't avoid their gaze, and throughout the concert you'd look up to catch them watching proceedings.
A lighting rig and stage were set up at one end of the Hall for the occasion. Throughout the night, in counterpoise to the music, the lights altered the colour onstage and in the background. Purple, green, blue, and intense white light flowed by and changed the tone of the room; a bit like Poe's 'The Masque of the Red Death'.
The concert got going with two works by the Argentinean Osvaldo Golijov, a composer Upshaw has frequently worked with. Scored for string quartet and soprano, How Slow the Wind (a setting of Emily Dickinson) and Lua Descolorida (a setting of Rosalia de Castro) follow a neo-Romantic musical language which somewhat set the tone for the lush and a mostly subdued atmosphere of the programme as a whole. Over tremolando strings, Upshaw's voice entered the room like a crystalline light, searching its dim confines in lyrical plaint, beautiful and powerful in equal measure.
Following this came a work written by Dennehy for Ó'Lionáird, Grá agus Bás (in Irish, Love and Death, though less humorous than the Woody Allen film). This is rousing stuff, building over twenty-five-or-so minutes, a tumultuous and brooding ensemble acting as a smoke-cloud out of which Ó'Lionáird's voice rises. Initial quarter-tone quasi-spectral harmonies set an off-kilter modal feel that soon sinks into shifting pulsating textures and constant polyphonic rumble. A final crescendo is speared by slow rising glissandi on strings and pumping brass. Of particular interest is how well Ó'Lionáird's hieratic voice, sometimes treated with electronic delay, intoning in a style more Indian-classical than European-classical, fits the music, which conjures a meeting of splinters and shards both minimalist and spectral in style.
After the interval, John Zorn's Paran for string duo and bass clarinet eased us back into proceedings with a Jewish folk-music type work which was dimensionless and lacking in substance.
This was made up for by the night's centrepiece, which followed. A new commission composed for Upshaw and the Crash Ensemble, That the Night Come, in this dim-lit hall seeing its world premiere, is a setting by Dennehy of six poems by Ireland's most canonical poet, W.B. Yeats. If you were the type to join dots between contemporary music and current events – such as, for example, the doom and gloom of the parlous economic state of Ireland facilitated by its oxymoronic 'government' – you might seek some significance in Dennehy's here reaching back to words of lyrical simplicity and traditional human beauty, focussed on straightforward emotional concerns – love, transience, memory and death, reaching out from the past like fingers of redemption and renewal. But that's only if.
The musical language will have surprised many. Dennehy usually explores off-kilter though not unbeautiful textures; here were six songs mostly bathed in unashamed sweetness and light, a sweetness and light, however, inevitably stained in the dark currents of the words they accompanied. It came across like a temporary shading under a bower, in the heightened shade art brings.
By Liam Cagney
Photos: Dawn Upshaw courtesy of Classical Artists; Crash Ensemble by Ros Kavanagh