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New Voices for Old Music

Present Music and Early Music Now featured great singers

Apr. 16, 2014
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Two very different, terrific singers were featured in concerts this weekend. Both sang old music, and both sang in highly evolved style. The similarities end there.

On Friday evening Iarla Ó Lionáird was guest in a Present Music concert in Turner Hall. He is an accomplished Sean-nós singer, a highly ornamented folk style of traditional Irish song. The songs he sang were Macaronic, a mixed language Welsh tradition from the 19th century. Ó Lionáird’s voice is true and exactly on pitch, delivering the complex plaintive melodies with earnest clarity, whether singing unaccompanied or with the ensemble.

The lengthiest, and in some ways least effective though admirable, of Ó Lionáird’s numbers was Grá agus bás (Love and Death), a composition by Irish composer Donnacha Dennehy. The piece paints a haunting mood and is vocally enormously challenging, but goes on a little long for my tastes.

Some of the rest of the concert featured other Irish themed music. The manic and very difficult Fire Hose Reel by Evan Chambers was played with fire by violinist Eric Segnitz and pianist Yegor Shevtsov. Cleek Schrey played traditional tunes on the Hardanger fiddle with panache. I wasn’t clear on why two pieces outside the Gaelic theme were included: Phil Kline’s Exquisite Corpses and Louis Andriessen’s Life.

The very best Messiah I’ve ever heard was sung some years ago at MSO by French-Canadian soprano Dominique Labelle. I was anxious to hear her again in a performance with the excellent Four Nations Ensemble of French Baroque music at the Saturday Early Music Now concert at UW-Milwaukee’s Zelazo Center.  

Labelle first teased the audience with simple airs by Jean-Philippe Rameau and Michel Lambert, but the 1710 cantata Médée by Louis-Nicolas Clérambault was the main attraction. Labelle’s commanding presence as a great singer and actress brought that fascinating monster Medea to life, showing various shades of her fury and vengeance. She was especially entrancing in the “Evocation,” in which she casts the spell of doom. The four accomplished musicians of Four Nations Ensemble presented a rare chance to hear French music of the early to mid-18th century played with sophisticated grace.


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