A pair of emotional works brings varied results with Alarm Will Sound

Fri Sep 20, 2019 at 1:22 pm
Alexandra Drewchin, aka Eartheater, performed When Fire is Allowed to Finish with Alarm Will Sound Thursday night at Merkin Concert Hall.

Alarm Will Sound is among the hottest names in the new music world, and the innovative chamber ensemble have been longtime participants in Kaufman Music Center’s “Ecstatic Music” series. On Thursday night, the group presented a program of two accomplished commissions with emotionally laden subjects in Kaufman’s Merkin Concert Hall.

The first was deeply personal—in introducing When Fire is Allowed to Finish, Alexandra Drewchin, who goes by the artist name Eartheater, explained that the piece draws on the feeling of loss she experienced in a relationship. 

Most of Eartheater’s work features her own voice as a primary component, but this commission is entirely instrumental; she approaches that challenge by channeling her voice largely into the violin and flute, which share melodies across the piece’s six movements.

“Iridescence of the Char” contrasts a bright overall composition with tender, slightly aching melodies for flute and violin. In “Candied Inferno,” fast bow strokes on harmonics create short bursts of light as the flute trills a haunting melody above. The entire ensemble groans in unison in the jagged syncopation of “Frustra Incandescent” while the violin cries out alone on the top.

Short, piercing figures in “The Slow Burning Chambers of My Heart” alternate with lyrical snatches of melody. “Arson of Comfort or Claustrophobia” holds a constant tension that dissolves into emptiness, followed by the hollow sounds and low rumbles of “Late Blooms in Fertile Ash.” Overall, Eartheater’s writing expresses deep feeling, even if it does so with relatively simplistic means.

The inverse was largely true of Donnacha Dennehy’s The Hunger, which, for all its polish, was frustrating. Dennehy’s musical construction is complex, holding a number of voices in tension with each other at any given moment, yet there was a feeling of detachment in this work; for the first two thirds of the piece there was hardly any emotional connection between the music and the text. 

The Hunger’s libretto is assembled from Asenath Nicholson’s Annals of the Famine in Ireland, a first-hand report of the Great Famine of 1845-49, and incorporates traditional Irish sean-nós singing. The main narrative voice, supplied by a soprano, recounts horrific scenes of the famine, focusing in particular on an encounter with an old man on the brink of death.

The Famine, one of the largest humanitarian disasters in the history of the British Isles, is a natural subject for an exploration of grief and suffering—yet most of the music is glassy, breezy, and bright. Hints of melancholy can be heard here and there, but the basic pulse of the music is a generic running string pattern; though the text refers to the eerie quiet of the starving Irish towns, there is hardly a moment of stillness in the entire piece. 

To be fair, the concert version presented in Thursday’s performance is an adaptation of a longer version that premiered at BAM in 2016, which included other multimedia elements such as interviews with historians. Perhaps the effect was different with additional context, but the music in the form presented on Thursday did not match the pathos of the text; a description of the elderly  man as “this picture of living death” felt glossed over, tacked on to the end of a phrase. In this concert adaptation it isn’t until the latter third of the work that Dennehy’s voice finally takes a darker turn, as the texture of the strings grows harsher and harmonies tighten, clashing more directly with the main vocal line.

Whatever chilliness there was in the music was no fault of the performers; Katherine Manley was formidable in singing the soprano part that represents Nicholson. She brought a penetrating sound and was able to follow the darting, swooping lines of her part without losing any of the fullness of her voice. She imbued her singing with rich emotion, even when the music itself was dispassionate. Iarla Ó Lionáird sang the old man’s sean-nós melodies with a warm, woody, light-grained voice somewhere between a tenor and a baritone. 

In both works, Alarm Will Sound played brilliantly under Alan Pierson, with rich, emphatic gestures in Eartheater’s passionate music, and tight precision and atmospheric textures in The Hunger.

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