Rob Gebelhoff

Celtic Soul Star Comes to Town

World-renowned Irish singer Iarla Ó Lionáird joins Present Music

By - Apr 3rd, 2014 11:10 am
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Iarla Ó Lionáird, one of the world's most renowned sean-nós singers, will join Present Music next week to deliver Donnacha Dennehy's "Grá agus Bás." Photo by York Tillyer.

Iarla Ó Lionáird, one of the world’s most renowned sean-nós singers, will join Present Music next week to deliver Donnacha Dennehy’s “Grá agus Bás.” Photo by York Tillyer.

The Irish singer Iarla Ó Lionáird is not easy to characterize. He is best known for his work as a member of the Afro Celt Sound System, a group which fuses electronic dance with traditional Irish and West Africa music. He has guest performed for David Letterman and other TV shows, and his music has also appeared in such movies as The Gangs of New York and Hotel Rwanda. But Lionáird is also well-known for performing sean-nós (old-style) music, which tries to capture ancient Celtic musical traditions. As if all that isn’t enough, he has also performed contemporary classical music.

All of which makes him the perfect guest performer for Present Music, Milwaukee’s contemporary classical ensemble, which has also ranged widely in its choice of programs. For this concert, Lionáird will perform the contemporary classical work of Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy, in a 24-minute work titled “Grá agus Bás (Love and Death).”

“It’s probably the first full-on experiment in modern classical music that uses sean-nós singing,” Lionáird says in a phone interview. “Every time I perform it, it’s a big undertaking. It really is a difficult piece to sing.”

The “tempestuous” work merges the post-minimalist styles of Dennehy with the highly ornamental singing of Lionáird, creating an entirely new blend of whirling orchestral sounds and Irish-styled singing. Lionáird describes it as a “daring” and “bold” piece with a message just as intense as its rhythm. “It deals head-on with the idea that love and death is coexistent,” he says.

Dennehy’s work is just one piece of a packed program that focuses on the themes of life, love and death. Present Music will also perform “Life” by contemporary composer Louis Andriessen alongside a film by Marijke van Warmerdam. UW-Milwaukee faculty artists will exhibit multimedia installations, and Danceworks Artistic Director Dani Kuepper will present her choreography to Phil Kline’s “Exquisite Corpses.”

The primary focus of the show, however, is the sean-nós style of Lionáird. In addition to “Grá agus Bás,” Lionáird will also perform (with the PM ensemble) the traditional Irish work “Táim Sínte Ar do Thuama (I Am Stretched Out on Your Grave — which has been performed by many artists, including Sinead O’Connor),” and an unaccompanied piece called “Táim Cortha ó Bheith Im’ Aonar Im’ Luó (I’m Weary from Lying Alone).”

“There’s a sort of directness and honesty to sean-nós,” Lionáird explains. “It’s self-accompanying, so in a way it is really is a solitary art form.” It’s often performed for audiences, yet “it is also a very intimate art form,” he notes.

Lionáird has been singing sean-nós since he was very young, recording his first vision song, “Aisling Gheal,” as a child. “It’s mysterious,” he says. “Sean-nós requires a fair degree of empathy, which is what makes them musically challenging.”

Sean-nós singing emerged from poetry, which was traditionally sung in Ireland. Lionáird believes the singing was so embedded in Irish daily life that the language itself took on songlike qualities, adding to the rich vowel structure of Gaelic. For this reason, Lionáird explains that Irish poetry and music have a more intense “sibling art form” relationship than in other literary cultures.

Irish contemporary composer Donnacha Dennehy created "Grá agus Bás" with the intention of Iarla Ó Lionáird singing it. Photo by Sophie Elbrick.

Irish contemporary composer Donnacha Dennehy created “Grá agus Bás” with the intention of Iarla Ó Lionáird singing it. Photo by Sophie Elbrick.

At the same time, though, sean-nós is different from other art forms like opera because, as Lionáird says, it doesn’t “beat you over the head” with melodramatic flourishes. Partly for this reason, this traditional national music has been gaining popularity in other countries.

“It’s not a huge movement, but there is now awareness that sean-nós is an interesting avenue of exploration for composers,” Lionáird says.

Still, it often gets used and then transformed. While works by rock performer Peter Gabriel and Dennehy uses elements of sean-nós in their compositions, they end up being something completely different.

“If you were to listen to this piece (by Dennehy), you don’t hear sean-nós in it, really,” Lionáird says. “It’s post-minimal, post-modern — but it’s really not traditional anymore.”

But that doesn’t bother him. “If people see ‘sean-nós’ in our program and they’ve never heard of it before, they might just look it up,” he says. “It shows that the art form is malleable — it’s useful. Artists like myself can have a contemporary voice.”

7:30 p.m. on April 11 at the Turner Hall Ballroom. Tickets range from $15-$35 and are available at Present Music’s website.

Other events coming up:

Wrapping up the Beethoven Festival

The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra’s Beethoven Festival closes this week as the ensemble performs the last of three pieces by the prolific composer. The concert, which will take place at the Pabst Theater, will feature Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, which will accompanied by Igor Stravinsky’s Symphonies of Wind Instruments and John Adam’s Violin Concerto. Violinist Leila Josefowicz will join the MSO to deliver the performance.

 8 p.m. on April 4-5 and 2:30 p.m. on April 6. Tickets range from $21.25 to $86.25, available online or by  calling (414) 291-7605.

Opera 101 with Skylight Music Theatre

Who says opera performances are limited to a theater? The Skylight Music Theatre doesn’t think so, sharing the art form over a few drinks and jokes at the Hotel Foster. Opera lovers — or aspiring fans — can join Skylight artistic director Viswa Subbaraman this week for a monthly discussion called Opera 101, which focuses on the tradition of the art form along with live performances by local singers. This week will hold the second to last Opera 101 event of the Skylight’s season.

7:30 p.m. on April 3. For more information, visit the Skylight Music Theatre’s website.

First Congregational Church concludes concert series

The First Congregational Church will conclude its three-part “4 O’clock Concert Series” this week with a final installment called “Aprilsongs.”

The concert, which is free and open to the public, will feature performances by local musicians Kurt Ollmann, an adjunct professor at UW-Milwaukee who has performed internationally and worked with Leonard Bernstein, and Jack Forbes Wilson, the music director for the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music. The two will tackle works by Bernstain, George Gershwin and others.

4 p.m. on April 6 at the First Congregational Church. For more information, visit the FCC’s website.

0 thoughts on “Classical: Celtic Soul Star Comes to Town”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I never knew about Iarla Ó Lionáird or Donnacha Dennehy, so thanks for bringing this to my attention with your review!

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