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Irish Eyes
Present Music's "Life, Love, and Death"

The contemporary met the traditional Friday night at Present Music's concert at Turner Hall. It's portentous title--"Life, Love, and Death"--wasn't as ominous when you realized that the two major works on the program were Louis Andriessen's "Life" and Donnacha Dennehy's "Love and Death." Call it truth in advertising.

The featured artists figured in both the Now and the Then. Iarla Ó Lionáird is an Irish singer Sean-nós singer, a tradition that is said to be at the root of all Gaelic song styles. And you could certainly hear that in O'Lionaird solos. They're a beautiful combination of rich sustained tones that grow and fade like a deep breath, and the musical filigree of ornamented melodies. In "Táim Curtha ó Bheith Im' Aonair Im' Lui" ("I'm Weary from Lying Alone"), which Ó Lionáird sung unaccompanied, the yearning solitude of the lyrics seems to saturate the air. In "Táim sínte ar do thuama" (I" Am Stretched Out on Your Grave"), Dennehy supplied a lush but transparent background, played well by the PM ensemble. As you can tell by the titles, these two songs alone could have contained the entirety of the concert theme--"Life, Love, Death."

The first half of the program also included Evan Chambers' "The Fire Hose Reel," a bravura, postmodern take on traditional reels for violin and piano. Eric Segnitz and Yegor Shevtsov played it with rollicking virtuosity. Phil Kline's "Exquisite Corpses" made the program, I suppose, because of its deathly title. Inspired by the "random" Dada constructions of the early modernists, it was accompanied by three women performing a dance by Dani Kuepper. The music followed the jumble-up, everything-is-beautiful aesthetic of Dada, and included a killer guitar part (played by Derek Johnson). And the dance was a witty take on the choreographic experiments of the early modernists. And just to keep things from getting too high-falutin', Cleek Schrey, who plays with Ó Lionáird in the home country, performed a couple of atmospheric solos on the Hardanger fiddle, a violin with a full but ethereal sound due to several resonating strings (you know the sound of it from the Lord of the Rings movies.

Andriessen's Life is a poignant, meditative quartet of tone poems that blends sensuous romanticism with post-minimal repetition. It was created with video artist Marijke van Warmerdam, whose short films depict wind-blown urban emptiness with a pastoral scene of an elderly couple sitting on a pond-side park bench. It's haunting and affecting.

Ó Lionáird returned for Dennehy's "Grá Agus Bás" ("Love and Death"), an exploration of the "ecstatic" moments of Sean-nós songs, particularly "Aisling Gheal," which translates roughly as "bright vision." Dennehy sets Ó Lionáird's soaring voice against a churning, large ensemble that suggests a chaotic abyss (at times, it reminded me of Debussy's La Mer). And again, that thirsting Sean-nós voice cut through the worldly roar, reaching for a transcendence that seemed ages old. 

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