An Irish-language Elegy

Composer Eoghan Desmond, conductor Cormac McCarthy, Chamber Choir Ireland and the Irish Chamber Orchestra following the premiere of 'Amra Choluim Chille'. (Photo: Mark Armstrong)

An Irish-language Elegy

Chamber Choir Ireland and the Irish Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Cormac McCarthy, gave the world premiere of Eoghan Desmond’s 'Amra Choluim Chille' on 15 March. Kevin Boushel reviews.

There are few examples of large-scale works in the Irish language. Robert O’Dwyer’s opera Eithne (1910) and a handful of settings of the Aifreann are some of the only instances of Irish-language works for instruments and chorus with multiple movements. The latest addition to this repertoire, Eoghan Desmond’s Amra Choluim Chille, received its world premiere before a sold-out audience at the chapel of Dublin City University’s All Hallows Campus (15 March). Amhráin na Naomh – Songs of the Saints – was the title of the Seachtain na Gaeilge concert given by Chamber Choir Ireland and the Irish Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Cormac McCarthy. McCarthy, known best for his work as a pianist and composer, gave his most ambitious conducting performance yet, having conducted the orchestra in May 2022 alongside the Irish Concertina Orchestra, as well as the RTÉ Concert Orchestra Big Band in a recent jazz concert. The first half contained a mixture of a cappella and instrumental works before the forces combined for the premiere of Desmond’s cantata after an intermission.

Manipulating the space of the former seminary chapel, the concert began at the back doors, with sopranos Abbi Temple and Felicity Hayward filling the resonant acoustic with Hildegard von Bingen’s O Virtus Sapientiae. The central choral work of the first half was Rakastava (The Lover) by Sibelius, in its second Chamber Choir Ireland performance in as many months. The memory of the work from the February concert in Dublin’s Pepper Canister Church clearly endured, with the choir delivering a fluent, sensitive and wholly engaging rendition of the cycle of Finnish love songs. While regular patrons may have been surprised by this unusual repetition in programming, their strong performance received a warm reception.

Audiences of Chamber Choir Ireland concerts would be familiar with the work of Arvo Pärt, given that their Artistic Director Paul Hillier wrote the first English-language monograph on the Estonian composer, though this concert subverted expectations with a performance of two instrumental works performed by the Irish Chamber Orchestra. In his sophomore outing at the helm of the orchestra, McCarthy gave a reading of both works that was a demonstration of careful restraint, highlighting the depth of the silences woven into Silouan’s Song, while delicately balancing the slow arch of intensity in Fratres. Considering the themes of saintly songs and Seachtain na Gaeilge, one surprising omission from this programme was The Deer’s Cry, Pärt’s setting of the prayer of St Patrick.

An ambitious new Irish-language work
After the intermission came the main event, Desmond’s 45-minute-long cantata for choir, strings, harp and percussion composed as part of his doctorate in composition at the University of Aberdeen. Amra Choluim Chille is a bardic poem written by the blind poet Dallán shortly after the death of St Columba in 597CE, translated into modern Irish by Patrick L. Henry. Desmond’s setting of the long-form elegy showcased his comfort writing in the choral idiom, with much of the drama found in the vocal lines and the orchestra fulfilling a largely coloristic role throughout much of the work. Evoking the themes of faith, grief and mysticism, Desmond weaves a patchwork quilt of styles, including a fiery slip jig played by the fiddling Devil in the fifth movement, and the use of extended techniques such as bowed crotales and indeterminate glissandi in the sixth, creating a mystic atmosphere to evoke Columba’s death. No influence is more prevalent, however, than the music of James MacMillan and Tarik O’Regan. While elements of MacMillan’s style are synthesised into the work, such as his folk-like vocal ornaments appearing in the fugue subject of the final movement, portions of the cantata bear striking resemblance to O’Regan’s choral compositions, such as the use of quartal chords, imitative passages in the upper voices and a Lydian modal palette; Desmond himself credits his 2018 performances of O’Regan’s Letter of Rights and MacMillan’s Stabat Mater with Chamber Choir Ireland as having a profound impact on the work. The powerful and compelling solos by Irish mezzo-soprano Sarah Luttrell and New Zealand tenor Christopher Bowen would dispel any notion that the Irish language is unsuited to contemporary music for international performers and audiences, lending credence to the work of Dáirine Ní Mheadhra advocating for increased commissioning of Irish-language repertoire. The work is an ambitious and effective setting of Dallán’s elegy, and a welcome addition to the repertoire of large-scale Irish language works.

As is to be expected at concerts of these two highly capable ensembles, the musicality and skill on display was impeccable. Where the concert suffered was in its thematic conceptualisation and consistency, particularly in contrast with other well-designed Chamber Choir Ireland concerts this season. For a concert marketed as a Seachtain na Gaeilge event, the music of the first half featured no works from Ireland. Having co-published Choirland (2012), an anthology of Irish choral music, Ireland’s flagship choral ensemble has no excuse to ignore the wealth of choral music composed on this island in favour of the works of better-known European composers, especially in the week of St Patrick’s Day and Seachtain na Gaeilge. The secondary theme of the concert was music attributed to saints, though even this theme was on shaky ground. In a social media post the day before the concert they acknowledged the unsuitability of the Sibelius love songs, stating that they ‘couldn’t resist’ programming the work again, and gave no rationale for its inclusion in the programme booklet. While the conceptual rigour of the programming may have been lacking, the platforming and recording of Amra Choluim Chille is certainly an important moment in contemporary Irish-language music, and the lengthy standing ovation of the full house underlined its impact on the Irish choral audience.

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Published on 23 March 2023

Kevin Boushel is a conductor, singer and Government of Ireland Scholar at Dublin City University. His doctoral research concerns stylistic trends in contemporary choral music in the United States.

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