@Steve J. Sherman


How it’s New York: This is Carnegie Hall.  It doesn’t get more New York than that.
@Steve J. Sherman

©Steve J. Sherman

How it’s Irish: Crash Ensemble is a Killkenny based contemporary/classical music group founded by Dublin born composer Donnacha Dennehy.  Iarla Ó Lionáird is Lead singer of Afro Celt Sound System, and a world renowned Sean Nós singer.  American soprano Dawn Upshawn sings a composition Dennehy wrote for her voice using the words of the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats.

Guest blogger Guenevere Donohue saw Crash Ensemble at Carnegie Hall last week, and reports back on an evening of “sweet-pain.”

Folks in attendance at Carnegie Hall on Friday, May 17, were treated to the rare opportunity of hearing the music of Donnacha Dennehy, a true Irish Innovator in contemporary orchestral music, and hearing this music sung by the world class voices he specifically composed them for.


©Steve J. Sherman

The Concert started with conductor Alan Pierson leading a string quartet of Crash Ensemble members accompanying the soprano Dawn Upshaw.  They warmed up the crowd with two pieces by composer-citizen of the world- Osvaldo Golijov, Luna Discolorida, and How Slow The Wind.  The pure floating soprano of Ms. Upshaw had an instant hypnotic effect on the audience along with crying strings and a cello supplying both bowed and plucking rhythms.  Golijov’s work paired well with like-minded composer Dennehy as both have a penchant for significant borrowing from folk traditions and poetry to create very new music.

The tone was set for an evening of sweet-pain, which is the go-to-mode of much that is great in Irish Art.

As the stagehands made ready for the featured composer’s works there was a terrific energy shift in the hall.  Anticipation turned to warm welcome as the full ensemble and Iarla Ó Lionáird took the stage. Grá agus Bás (Love and Death) was the next piece to be performed and everyone knew it.

Grá agus Bás is not only a work of incredible beauty and energy but it includes the heartening thrill of hearing a new work written in Gaeilge (the Irish language).  Phrases and patterns were gleaned from two Sean Nós (literally–Old Style) songs, but with such fresh inventive reworking and orchestration that it was at once familiar as your own skin and odd, surprising, brand new.

Using a snippet of text from the well-known, and well-loved Aisling Gheal (A Bright Vision), and two lines from Táim Sínte ar do Thuama (I Am Stretched on Your Grave), Dennehy chops the songs into bits, and riffs on patterns in the music creating an instrumental energy of struggle.   The jumping tones from the expert ensemble give the listener a visceral experience of the difficulties faced by the voice richly expressing in the piece.  Iarla O’Lionaird’s presence and ease with the challenging material lent a gravity of deep knowledge and uncomplicated acceptance.  He had the power of a shaman letting the sound-story-history emanate from him as from a deep well with our ancestors in the water.  Nests of shimmering sound held the voice of the singer sometimes cradling it and adding subtle complexity with expert minimalist strokes.


© Steve J. Sherman

The second half of the program started with an arrangement of Aisling Gheal for cello and electronics featuring Kate Ellis and Donnacha himself on laptop.  The voice of the c perfectly conveyed the song’s melody so familiar on human strings.  It was impossible not to admire the nerve of this young composer performing an instrumental version of the Sean Nós song Ó Lionáird made famous -with the man probably still in the building.  It was great!

The evening finished with the return of Upshaw and a set of songs titled, That the Night Come, based on six poems by William Butler Yeats.   Dawn Upshaw sought out Dennehy after hearing a recording of Grá agus Bás.  Her interest in his work lead to the creation of this closing song cycle written for her voice.

It was a terrific night of music, and great to be in the presence of such gifted artists, witnessing what comes into existence when they inspire each other to create, new music deeply rooted in a tradition as Irish as or blood.

About the Author