by Melanie Wong
Known for their originality, innovation, and experimental nature, Alarm Will Sound presented “Composed for Us” last Saturday at Carnegie Hall. Carnegie’s intimate Zankel Hall was a perfect fit for the 20-member contemporary chamber ensemble and the intriguing program boasted five works composed specifically for the group, including a Carnegie-commissioned world premiere and three New York premieres.
Opening the program was the New York premiere of Journeyman, written by their very own pianist, John Orfe. The five-minute work was colorful, energetic, and an easy listen harmonically, however it somehow left the group sounding a bit small—coming across more like a work for a collegiate-level wind symphony.
Second up was David Lang's increase, an Alarm Will Sound “oldie,” having been the first piece ever written specifically for the group. A quasi-minimalist piece, the persistently pulsing rhythm unfortunately seemed to get old well before the end, and although the soloists projected well throughout, the group as a whole had some trouble filling the hall once again. By the end of the work, thankfully, AWS seemed to pull together a newfound strength and produced a powerful and riveting finale.
The New York premiere of Charles Wuorinen's Big Spinoff closed out the first half, a recent arrangement of his 1983 Spinoff for violin, bass, and congas. (Humorously, some refer to the piece as a “spinoff of Spinoff.”) Though the work was quickly paced and complex, it came across as a bit anti-climactic. Alarm Will Sound’s energy seemed to drift throughout and left the moto perpetuo piece feeling somewhat lifeless.
After intermission came the New York premiere of Donnacha Dennehy's 45-minute “musical suite” incorporating scenes from The Hunger, a work-in-progress music-theater piece based on the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1852. The dour subject was profound, yet overwhelming, including intermittent recordings of ordinary people singing traditional sean nós (old style) which, when accompanied by the ensemble, expressed a truly sad, yet hopeful power.
However, while the music was well-written and oftentimes beautiful, the sections without sean nós lasted too long without explicitly going anywhere. The fidgety audience’s attention was all but lost when mezzo-soprano Rachel Colloway joined the group to sing, “If he died, what then.” Colloway’s stunning vocal performance was spoiled by the fact that her “song” was not really a song at all, but rather eight full paragraphs of text taken from Asenath Nicholson's narrative, Annals of the Famine in Ireland.
The excruciating length and improbability of following the text proved too much for the audience’s already stretched attention span—and more than a few found themselves asleep in their chairs.