Donnacha Dennehy and Alarm Will Sound leave us Hunger-ing for more

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Alarm Will Sound (Photo by Justin Bernhaut)

Famine isn’t a cheery topic. And when we’re talking about the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1852, it could seem like musty and old as well as unpleasant.

And, let’s face it, the Great Famine is not a happy subject.

Luckily, when the fantastic Irish composer and Crash Ensemble bandleader Donnacha Dennehy takes on the monumental subject, it assumes a magical, transcendent quality.

Dennehy and the awesome 20-member New Music ensemble Alarm Will Sound gave New York its first taste of The Hunger, a still in-progress theater piece that combines the ensemble with live singing by an Irish  sean nós singer and a mezzo-soprano, at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall on Saturday night, April 6.

We were mesmerized for all 45 minutes of urgent playing coupled with recordings of Irish sean nós singing and the keening of a mother for her dead child, along with and live singing by the extraordinary Rachel Calloway.

Calloway sang lyrics based on the first-hand accounts of the famine by the American nonconformist Asenath Nicholson, who spent two years in Ireland working with those dying of starvation. Her words in song are gripping, terrifying and urgent.

The piece is destined to be a full evening of performance by Alarm Will Sound, sean nós singer Iarla  Ó Lionáird and one of our very favorite mezzos, Dawn Upshaw. While Upshaw will likely put the finished work into an even higher category, we were mightily impressed with Calloway’s work on Saturday.

This taste leaves us starving to hear more.

While The Hunger was the marquee event of Saturday’s program, Alarm Will Sound got plenty of opportunity to show off its New Music chops in the first half, as well. The evening was intended to draw attention to the fact that the 12-year-old group, led by Alan Pierson (who also helms the Brooklyn Philharmonic), has amassed quite a bit of music written specifically for it.

One of its oldest commissions, David Lang‘s increase, composed in 2002, was the highlight of the first half. But the world premiere of the noisy, energetic Fly By Wire, by the suddenly ubiquitous Tyondai Braxton and New York premiere of Charles Wuorinen‘s Big Spinoff, were plenty of fun. Journeyman, composed by Alarm Will Sound’s pianist, John Orfe, also had its New York premiere Saturday.

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