One of music's delights is the unexpected. You walk into the Orchestra Hall anticipating a quiet evening with a choir, and you run into something that shatters your expectations about what Celtic music or classical music even means.
This is why genre-busting acts are so exciting. Anuna, an Irish choral group who played the hall this weekend, are such a group. Rooted in Celtic traditions, but drawing on influences from medieval, operatic and modern folk music, they collectively create a visual and aural experience that is as powerful as it is enjoyable.
Founded by Dublin composer Michael McGlynn, Anuna performs material ranging from traditionals (“Greensleeves,” “Scarborough Fair,”) to contemporary originals. Accompanied intermittently by a French harp and violin, the joined voices are still this show’s centerpiece. And yes, that makes this a choral group in the truest sense. But when some songs sound like they might fit in with the bombast of Carmina Burana, others during play in a schoolyard and still others in a 17th century monastery, it’s hard to slap an easy label on the music.
The 14 singers are as eclectic as the songs. Some are classically trained, others not; they’re drawn from choirs, opera companies, and even rock bands. Each singer’s strengths are brought to bear at different times during the experience, and pieces sung in Gaelic or other languages were testament to the power of the human voice to communicate emotion regardless of any language barrier.
“The Dawn,” a kind of magical story with lilting, hypnotic lead vocals, opened the night and then gave way to a Gaelic children’s song called “Gantry,” where the lyrics – I am trusting them on this – translate loosely to “we throw it in the air, we throw it in the air, we throw it in the air, we hope you won’t explode.” Who said the classics lack whimsy?
Stage presence is another part of Anuna’s appeal. Irreverent and spontaneous banter – jokes, friendly jabs from a vocalist at oneself or other group members – eliminate any pretense of, well, pretense. During the disarming choral introductions I learned that two members used to be doctors, one has been told he looks like Justin Timberlake, and only one of the seven men is married (not, in case you were wondering, the one who favors JT).
Most affecting of the compositions is “Jerusalem,” drawn from text written by a priest circa 1601. It is performed as a vocal medley reminiscent of a round. While the plaintive lyrics emerge from each singer at differing intervals, the robed women slowly proceed in stages through the venue – somehow managing to fill its expanse with their voices. We were asked to close our eyes for a moment during the song, to better soak in the sound. I did, and then opened them again.
It is perhaps cliché to say that this was like awakening in a cloister of angels. It is, however, accurate.
I think about the distinction between so-called low art and high art on occasion. Particularly in a country whose national anthem tune was cribbed from a tavern song, it seems to me this line should be seen as mostly artificial. Anuna blends spiritual texts and lyrics purportedly written by kings and saints with the traditional music of the countryside. The message: quality is quality, and songs of all stripes can ring true when performed well.
This show – again, trusting the veracity of on-stage reporting – was the largest and friendliest crowd that Anuna had experienced thus far in the United States. Other cities are missing out.
SAMPLE MP3 FILES* Sanctus (3:45) * Fionnghuala (1:31) * Aisling (3:28)
ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB
From Youtube, here are two Anuna videos:
“Blue Bird,” a heartbreakingly gorgeous number that marked the final encore:
“Jerusalem,” a piece that simply must be experienced live if possible.