Performance Friday, May 17, 2013 | 6 PM

Crash Ensemble

Zankel Hall
Donnacha Dennehy's haunting, lyrical That the Night Come anchors this concert that features Crash Ensemble, an Irish group that plays “with the energy and spirit of a rock group” (The New York Times), and soprano Dawn Upshaw, who has a special ability to bring an emotional immediacy and timelessness to new music.

This concert is part of My Time, My Music.
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The Program


About the Composer

In a musical age defined by multiculturalism, Osvaldo Golijov may well be the quintessential global composer. Born and raised in Argentina by Eastern European Jewish immigrants, he has also lived in Jerusalem and in the US. His music expertly absorbs a variety of ethnic influences, including klezmer melodies, Sephardic street calls, Afro-Cuban rhythms, and Argentinian tangos. He effortlessly incorporates such material—along with more contemporary techniques like laptop sampling—into "high art" classical compositions, and at the same time never abandons a penchant for extraordinary melody.

"Lúa Descolorida"

"Lúa Descolorida" ("Colorless Moon") sets a melancholy poem by 19th-century Galician poet Rosalía de Castro. It draws inspiration from the melismatic vocal writing in the Leçons de ténèbres by French Baroque composer François Couperin, as well as from the voice of Dawn Upshaw herself, for whom the piece was written. Golijov was attracted to Rosalía's poem for its portrayal of despair "in a way that is simultaneously tender and tragic"—a trait he no doubt successfully transfers to this music.

The soprano melody is florid from the outset, meandering down a plethora of pitches on its opening syllable. Aside from a brief violin solo that echoes the singer's melismatic style, the strings act strictly as accompaniment, playing without vibrato in a Baroque style. They carry the melody—and the listener—on what Golijov keenly describes as a "slow-motion ride in a cosmic horse."

"How Slow the Wind"

"How Slow the Wind," which combines two brief, contemplative poems by Emily Dickinson, is Goljiov's artistic response to the unexpected death of his friend in an accident. "I had in mind one of those seconds in life that is frozen in the memory forever," writes the composer. "A sudden death, a single instant in which life turns upside down, different from the experience of death after a long agony."

As if to allow more time for reflection on the text (and the emotions it evokes), Golijov lingers longer on instrumental material here than in "Lúa Descolorida," employing the soprano only after the violin has introduced the central theme itself, and often dividing sections with ensemble passages. Similarly, much of the verse—especially the phrase "How late their feathers be"—is annunciated multiple times and in a variety of ways, insisting that the listener engage with their meaning.

—Jacob Cooper

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Grá agus Bás

About the Composer

One of Ireland's most prominent contemporary composers, Donnacha Dennehy absorbed a good deal of traditional Irish music while playing recorder and singing traditional songs at family gatherings in his youth before dedicating himself to rigorous academic training in the Western "classical" style. His mature works are guided by an American post-minimalist rhythmic drive, yet do not shun dissonance or classical structures, and they often expertly integrate Irish vernacular music. Dennehy's interest in microtonality (the pitches in between the notes of the Western scale) reflects the diversity of his influences: His style owes a debt to both spectralism—a musical practice driven by analyses of sound spectra and overtones—and the "accidental microtonality" of Irish pub singers. Dennehy serves as the artistic director of Crash Ensemble, which he founded in 1997.

About the Music

Grá agus Bás (Love and Death) may well be Dennehy's most direct and profound engagement with traditional Irish music, specifically the sean nós idiom. Translating literally as "old style," sean nós is a highly ornamented vocal style that has been passed down orally through dozens of generations in parts of Ireland. In conceiving Grá agus Bás, Dennehy met often with sean nós vocalist Iarla Ó Lionáird, and the two devised how to effectively transplant the style into a notated contemporary classical context.

Multiple sean nós songs provide source material for Grá agus Bás. Dennehy adopts excerpts of their texts and fragments of their melodies, often modifying the latter considerably. Inspired by the collective themes of these preexisting works, the composer has explained that Grá agus Bás addresses "the themes of love and death in a non-narrative context."

A Closer Listen

Sean nós tunes are traditionally unaccompanied, and there is no doubt that the voice is the central figure in Grá agus Bás. The ensemble's material largely takes its shape from the vocal melodies, creating minimalist patterns out of brief ornamental episodes. Yet the instruments are often quite active, indulging in rapid arpeggios, intricate polyrhythms, syncopated riffs, and groove-oriented patterns. 

The work alternates between periods of conventional harmonic motion with standard tuning and other periods of harmonic stasis in which "just intonation" (pure tuning of overtones, related to the concept of spectralism described above) colors the chord. The energy ebbs and flows throughout, and after a notable extended climax dissipates, we might presume we have ridden the last wave. But amid constantly rising scales and unceasing repetition of musical cells, the tension redoubles, peaking as the vocalist terrifyingly exclaims, "Gur ghearr on mbás mé" ("I would be near death").

—Jacob Cooper

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

"Aisling Gheal" (arr. Donnacha Dennehy)

Of the several sean nós pieces Dennehy drew from to create Grá agus Bás, "Aisling Gheal" provided the most fodder. After composing Grá agus Bás, he decided to directly apply his spectralist tuning technique to the traditional song.

The song is a kind of skeleton lurking behind what happens on the surface, where the melody is taken into a new realm. The gentle, ambient electronics are made up of stretched, layered, and retuned cello harmonics so as to soak the poignant melody in its own overtones. While its harmonic and stylistic connections to Grá agus Bás are clearly audible, the slow, free tempo and sparse orchestration stand in stark contrast to the pulsing vitality of its more expansive companion.

—Jacob Cooper 

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

That the Night Come

About the Music

That the Night Come explores another colossal element of Irish culture: the poetry of W. B. Yeats. Dennehy explains that the six Yeats poems that he gathered for this song cycle embody the poet's "repeating obsessions with unattainable (or unsustainable) love, his longing for fullness of experience, his anger at fleeing happiness, and the certainty of time's ravage and death"—broad themes that, taking the conceptual focus of Grá agus Bás as a cue, clearly resonate for the composer. Dennehy also finds Yeats's text to be appealing for its frequent ambiguity: "These poems are so rich, with lots of hidden meanings. ... That's classically Irish. ... When we say something, it has five possible meanings, and our conversations are constructed on those grounds."

A Closer Listen

Like the text it sets, the music of That the Night Come covers a vast spectrum of emotion, from the uneasy calm of the opening "He Wishes His Beloved Were Dead" to the driving intensity of the closing eponymous   poem. Fittingly, Dennehy also takes advantage of the astonishing versatility of the voice of Dawn Upshaw, for whom he composed the cycle: He draws not simply on the pure, soaring tone for which she is so well known, but also on her rich low register, along with nasal sonorities, throaty utterances, and her ability to nimbly shift from speech to song.

Dennehy often captures Yeats's imagery with effective (and subtle) word painting: Isolated high piano notes represent distant lights in the initial song, interweaving arpeggios symbolize the rippling water refracting light in "The Old Men Admiring Themselves in the Water," and shimmering repeated notes reflect the effervescent sea foam in "The White Birds." Yet Dennehy does not simply rely on aural symbolism to bring the text to life; in each song, his writing exposes a clear, individual emotive force.

—Jacob Cooper

© 2013 The Carnegie Hall Corporation

Osvaldo Golijov is the holder of the 2012–2013 Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall.
This performance is part of Off the Beaten Track.

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