In the moment

One thing I often tell choirs who are performing my music as well as choirs I conduct in performance is that if they sing with real intention and singleness of purpose, they can stop time. They can be fully present, and dwell completely in the moment (this is just a homely paraphrase of the title of an 1847 sermon by Søren Kierkegaard, Purity of heart is to will one thing.)

The challenge, of course, is getting there. We have to set aside distractions external (the hall, the day, the notes, the audience) and internal (ego, fear, insecurity, and all the rest) and find a way to be at home in the center of the music we make with one another. In choral music-making, we have an easier path than orchestral musicians do, because we have the added benefit of text to communicate the elements of story.

Even so, this is a daunting task, as anyone who has tried it knows full well. All the more impressive, then, that the members of RTÉ Cór Linn — a mixed choir of 35 or so singers aged 15 to 20, meeting weekly on Saturdays — achieved such a high level of artistry last night in their premiere of the newly orchestrated arrangement of I Will Be The Light in Dublin’s National Concert Hall, accompanied by the RTÉ National Concert Orchestra and conductor Gavin Maloney.

2770-036-300x204The concert itself was something the likes of which I’ve never seen before: a live taping of the hugely successful “Sunday Miscellaney” (here pronounced miss-CELL-a-nee for reasons that remain in the cloud of unknowing to me) radio programme on RTÉ, which cleverly alternates prose and poetry with musical performances in a variety of styles from jazz and pop standards to classical.

Some shows are themed, and that’s what was happening last night–a recording of the programme’s highly popular “Live at Christmas” episode. From my seat near the front of the main balcony, I was afforded a view that showed a sold-out house (in fact, it had been sold out in advance for some time).

RTÉ Cór Linn had been on site for hours before concert time, and I got to finally meet them around 4:30, when they gathered to warm up and polish the two selections they were going to sing on the programme: Mark Hayes’ choral/orchestral setting of Sing We All of Christmas (based on the French Noël Nouvelet) and the premiere of my tune.

And they were just what you’d expect from a group of singers that age: plenty of high spirits, lots of energy, boisterous . . . one young tenor cutting a length of fabric to fashion an improvised tie in place of the one he’d forgotten at home . . . that is, until the time for the downbeat came.

Now, I have been around choirs of one kind or another for 45 years. But this singing was truly special. Free, lovely sound. Nuanced phrasing. Healthy dynamic range (not wispy at piano, not belted or throaty at forte). Energized line. It was hard to believe that they’d only been singing together since September.

Was there room for improvement? Sure. We spent time reviewing some of the basic principles for singers’ diction: when two consonants meet, insert a shadow vowel. When two vowels meet, always bracket the second vowel. When singing a diphthong, energize the sustained vowel and don’t even think about the vanishing vowel. Vocal  consonants having pitch must carry the pitch of the vowel that follows them, as in “mood,” or on the pitch of the vowel that precedes them, as in “doom.”

They all were quick studies, and held onto the new concepts very well. Then it was time to go rehearse with the orchestra. That’s when things got surprising–and wonderful.

The first surprise was that they were seated in the balcony behind and above the stage, next to the organ console, which they took in stride. The second surprise was hearing the instrumentation for the first time; they had been singing my tune strictly with the piano accompaniment I had originally written for it. Even though none of the notes were new, the colours were, and the first time they sang through it with Maestro Maloney things were a little tentative.

By the second run-through, they were back in the groove, and all that was really needed was to check for balance between the performing forces. So they hired this guy, who was otherwise standing around doing nothing, and got things toned down appropriately:


And then it was time for the concert. The first half closed with my tune, and the choir sang it beautifully. I managed to maintain my composure, but I’ll admit that it wasn’t easy. After the applause died down, the narrator doing continuity for the evening said, “The composer of this piece is an American, Dr Gerald Custer from Detroit, and we’ve heard he’s come over to hear tonight’s premiere. We hope he liked it!”

Well, to borrow a phrase from a famous dead Welshman, I am not one to “go gentle into that good night.” So I yelled out, as charmingly as possible–but still resonantly–from my seat in the balcony, “Why, yes — he certainly did!”

And then the lights came up, and it was time for the interval (intermission), and that was that. Over and done.

So that’s the story. I wish you could have all been with me in person, and I hope this little account helped bring it alive somewhat. I could sense your presence with me in spirit, and that was a source of real happiness. Thank you for being there.

At some point, RTÉ will broadcast the concert on one of their FM channels. I’ve been told we can stream them over here, so when I get the date and time information, I will post it here for anyone who’s interested.