Crash Ensemble at the Studio, National Concert Hall, on 20 September 2016

As ‘Composing the Island’ enters its final week, programming turns to music of recent times. Tonight the Crash Ensemble, always at the forefront of contemporary music performance in Ireland, makes the first of two appearances in this series. Its programme, with pieces from 2006 to 2009, is clearly designed to give a sense of the range of music being produced in Ireland, even within such a short time-span. To its credit, the ensemble attracts a near sell-out audience.

The opening piece, Dorchadas [‘darkness’] by Ann Cleare, quickly establishes a weighty and layered sound-world. The intense downward pressure of this music evokes the effect of an implosion, whilst at the same time revealing a surprising feeling for clarity and delineation between the instrumental voices. A work that explores lower limits, it elicits some visceral and virtuoso playing from members of the ensemble, and even a feeling for theatricality, with Roddy O’Keeffe’s trombone boldly featuring at centre-stage.

After the meditative formalism of Dorchadas, the effect of Andrew Hamilton’s confrontational music for people who like art (2009) is stark. A work that easily divides audiences, it created one of the more memorable moments of last year’s New Music Dublin four-hour marathon, and again tonight features the voice of Michelle O’Rourke.

The work’s repeated motto-like sequences, as O’Rourke chants fragments of art statements over static instrumental chords, are constantly under threat of decay, loudly stuttering like a scratched CD or corrupt sound file. Performing these momentary breaks with sudden yells, croaks, groans, coughs and, eventually, full-on retches, O’Rourke turns on a powerhouse performance, horrific yet compelling. The segments of tentative escape are brought out well by different instrumental solos, and the occasional moments of lightness ironically reveal O’Rourke’s natural vocal qualities all the more.

Gerald Barry, often associated with music of extreme density and energy, is tonight represented by one of his more understated works, the string quartet First Sorrow. Persuasively played by Crash Ensemble players Cora Venus Lunny, Cliodhna Ryan (violins), Lisa Dowdall (viola) and Kate Ellis (cello), the piece’s gentle gestures create an effect of quiet suspense, or even oppressive calm.

The closing work, Donnacha Dennehy’s Grá agus Bás [‘Love and Death’] provides the title to this concert, and also enables it to be a tribute to Dennehy himself as the Ensemble’s founder. Written specially for the group and singer Iarla Ó Lionáird (who also sings tonight), hearing this piece in the context of this festival raises interesting questions. Like other pieces heard over the past week-and-a-half, it marries Irish traditional material with contemporary idioms. Admittedly the approach here is radically different, as Ó Lionáird’s sean nós singing works both within and beyond the instrumental texture… but can Dennehy’s flexibly polyharmonic idiom avoid simply representing another new orthodoxy, another framing device? The amplified ensemble approaches the work’s complex interweavings with flair and vivid playing, led by Alan Pierson’s calm, even-handed conducting, and Ó Lionáird sings as finely as ever. Crafting a gleaming machine of pulsating, transparent sound, the ensemble draws out a brilliant, spinning ending. The applause that follows is strong and sustained – a good night for Irish music, warts and all.

Programme:

Ann Cleare: Dorchadas (2007)

Andrew Hamilton: music for people who like art (2009)

Gerald Barry: First Sorrow (2006-7)

Donnacha Dennehy: Grá agus Bás (2007)

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