Composers Festival spotlight: Donnacha Dennehy

Donnacha Dennehy returns to the Mizzou International Composers Festival in 2019 as a distinguished guest composer, having previously served in the same capacity in 2012, and thereby making MICF history by becoming the only composer to play that role twice.

Considered one of Ireland’s top living composers, Dennehy (pictured) is a founder of the new music group Crash Ensemble and an associate professor of music at Princeton University. His music has been featured at major festivals and venues around the world, including the Edinburgh International Festival; Carnegie Hall; the Tanglewood Festival; the Kennedy Center; The Barbican, Wigmore Hall, and the Royal Opera House in London, and many others.

In recent years, Dennehy has concentrated especially on large-scale musico-dramatic works, including his first opera “The Last Hotel,” which premiered at the Edinburgh International Festival in August 2015 and was released on an album earlier this year by Cantaloupe Music; and “The Second Violinist,” which won the 2017 Fedora Prize for Opera, premiered in July 2017 at the Galway International Arts Festival, and was presented in September 2018 at the Barbican in London.

Then there’s “The Hunger,” which was performed first as a work-in-progress at the 2012 MICF, subsequently co-produced in completed form by Alarm Will Sound and Opera Theatre St. Louis, and presented in 2016 at Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.

The work follows the story of an American who went to Ireland during the Great Famine when so many were fleeing, and shows through text and music her transformation “from clerical observer to empathetic participant.” Now in its completed form, “The Hunger” will be released as an album in CD and digital formats on Friday, August 23 by Nonesuch Records.

For the MICF, Alarm Will Sound, soprano Katherine Manley, and sean nós singer Iarla O’Lionáird will perform the complete concert version of “The Hunger” as part of AWS’ concert on Thursday, July 25 at the Missouri Theatre. In addition, the Mizzou New Music Ensemble will perform Dennehy’s “The Blotting” as part of the “Mizzou New Music” concert on Friday, July 26 at the Missouri Theatre.

Other recent projects of Dennehy’s include “Surface Tension,” premiered by Third Coast Percussion in February 2016 and released last month as part of an album on the New Amsterdam label; “The Weather of it” for the Doric String Quartet, co-commissioned by Wigmore Hall and Carnegie Hall and premiered at Wigmore Hall in July 2016; a piece for the LA Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella series; and “Broken Unison” for So Percussion, co-commissioned by the Cork Opera House and Carnegie Hall.

In addition to the above, Dennehy has received commissions from Bang On A Can, Contact Contemporary Music (Toronto), Dawn Upshaw, Fidelio Trio, Joanna MacGregor, Kronos Quartet, Icebreaker, Nadia Sirota, National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland, Orkest de Volharding (Amsterdam), Percussion Group of the Hague, San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Ulster Orchestra, United Instruments of Lucilin (Luxembourg), Wide Open Opera (Dublin), and many others.

Along with the forthcoming album of “The Hunger,” Dennehy’s music can be heard on a number of recordings. Grá agus Bás, his 2011 release on Nonesuch featuring Crash Ensemble and singers Dawn Upshaw and Iarla O’Lionáird, was named as one of NPR’s “50 favorite albums’’ for the year.

RTE Lyric FM in 2014 issued a portrait CD of Dennehy’s orchestral music, and his works also have been heard on other releases include a number by NMC Records in London, Bedroom Community in Reykjavik, and Cantaloupe Music in New York. A recording of “Tessellatum,” a piece for Nadia Sirota and viol consort, came out on Bedroom Community in August 2017, and Surface Tension / Disposable Dissonance, with performances by Crash Ensemble and Third Coast Percussion, was released in June 2019 on New Amsterdam records.

For more about Donnacha Dennehy, listen to the interview he did recently with KMUC’s “Mizzou Music” program, and read the interview with him published last month in The Journal of Music. You can hear some of his music via the embedded players below.

Donnacha Dennehy, director Tom Creed, and singers Iarla Ó Lionáird and Katherine Manley are interviewed about the 2016 production of “The Hunger” at Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York

“Broken Unison,” performed by So Percussion on January 19, 2019 at Koerner Hall in Toronto

“Stainless Staining,” performed by Isabelle O’Connell (piano) with electronics on March 30, 2017 at SARC, Queen’s University in Belfast, Ireland

“Bulb,” recorded in 2014, featuring Vicky Chow (piano), Ashley Bathgate (cello) and Todd Reynolds (violin)

“The weather of it,” performed by Isaac Allen (violin), Bram Goldstein (violin), Angela Choong (viola) and Alex Greenbaum, (cello) on October 16, 2018 at Historic Old St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco