Most composers are musicians first. But for Donnacha Dennehy, who is serving as composer-in-residence with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra during its 2013-14 season, playing and composing emerged simultaneously.
“I started composing the second I started music,” said the 42-year-old Irishman, who began his life in music at about age 9. “Music wasn’t in my family at all. But my father was a writer. He wrote radio plays. And so I thought I should be able to write music like he wrote words.”
Symphony patrons will have the opportunity to see how that worked out for Dennehy when the orchestra performs the Dublin native’s song cycle for soprano and orchestra, That the Night Come, in a set of three performances beginning Friday. The work is a setting of six poems by early 20th-century Irish poet W.B. Yeats.
“Yeats is a poet that we grow up with in Ireland. His poetry is in your bloodstream,” said Dennehy, who is currently a visiting professor at Princeton. “So I chose poems [for this work] that resonated deeply with me. I had a strong emotional response to those texts. They reveal some of these obsessions of Yeats. Things like his anger at time fleeting, and the lack of permanence in life.”
That the Night Come certainly has an impressive heritage. The 2010 composition was commissioned by Dawn Upshaw, one of America’s best known and loved sopranos. The renowned singer played an indirect role in getting Dennehy to Fort Worth.
“I met Donnacha when I was conducting in Dublin a year and a half ago. And, at the time, I was looking for our composer-in-residence for the 2013-14 season,” said Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra music director Miguel Harth-Bedoya, who also will be leading the orchestra in works by Richard Strauss. “His name had been brought up by composer Osvaldo Golijov and soprano Dawn Upshaw some time before. It was just a great coincidence that I met him in Dublin then, and immediately got to know his music in depth.”
Dennehy, who has studied at the University of Illinois and in France, as well as his homeland, said that he considers himself to be “a kind of intercultural melting pot.” But he stresses that his studies in this country were especially important in shaping his style.
“I came to America as a grad student in the 1990s and I was very influenced by American minimal music and post-minimal music,” said Dennehy, who has also composed a work for the famously edgy Kronos string quartet.
Harth-Bedoya says he thinks audiences will find that Dennehy’s work offers a fresh yet accessible sound.
“His music is different than our past composers-in-residence. He, like the others, has a unique musical voice. But his music is also very user-friendly,” said the maestro via email from Oslo, where he was conducting the Norwegian Radio Orchestra.
First time in Texas
The title “composer-in-residence” is a bit of a misnomer in Dennehy’s case. He will neither create new works nor live here over the coming symphony season. Rather, he will be a featured contemporary composer, with three of his works being offered on symphony programs.
Despite his years of study in this country, he will be making his first trip to Texas when he comes to town for the performances of this piece next weekend.
“I imagine that steak in Texas is really good,” he said, in response to a question about his priorities as a Lone Star first-timer.
The highly diverse program for the three concerts, which will open the symphony’s regular subscription season, features the Dennehy work (featuring soprano Jessica Rivera); Fuquoi in the Sugar Cane, by 20th-century South African composer Henry Lissant-Collins; and the suite from Der Rosenkavalier and the tone poem Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, both by Strauss.