Off Topic: The Chimneys of Dublin

If you look online, you can readily find glossy colour photograph posters of The Doors of Dublin. And for good reason–there really are some spectacularly beautiful ones to be seen in the neighbourhood where I’m staying.

But I’ve become fascinated by something else: what flies above the doors, namely The Chimneys of Dublin. Here are some samples from this morning’s walkabout on my way to catch breakfast:


Here’s what you can find right around the corner where I’m staying, even in the first week  of December:


And speaking of breakfast, here’s what mine looked like a few minutes ago:


It’s gone now.

In Praise of Teachers

At dinner the other night with Lesley Bishop, the choral administrator from RTÉ, the question came up, “What do you think is essential for success in our profession? Is it just raw talent? Or is it something else?”

The longer I’m here in Ireland, the more I’m realizing the power of story and storytelling. And so I started my answer by telling two stories about myself.

The first took place when my symphony for chorus and orchestra, Everything Indicates, was premiered at Carnegie Hall. After I took a bow from the composer’s box, my mother (who was sitting there beside me) turned to me and said, “Where did that come from?”

At the time, I didn’t know how to answer her. I got a tad defensive (it was awhile ago) and said, “From me, of course!” That wasn’t the right answer, by the way. Keep reading.

The second was sharing the question I traditionally ask my students when they return from Thanksgiving break, “Honest show of hands–how many of you actually practiced over the vacation?” Typically, about half say they have. To them, I say “Congratulations. You might just possibly have a career.” **

The truth of the matter is this: I am not really all that gifted. I have been surrounded by far more talented people for my entire career, starting with my classmates: Michael Sylvester, who sang Radames at the Met more times than any tenor in the last 30 years. David Agler, artistic director of the National Opera Center in Wexford, Ireland. Daniel Beckwith, whose career conducting at the Met and other opera houses continues to astonish. Gregory Funfgeld, long-term conductor of the Bethlehem Bach Choir.

There are more: John Bragle, director of choirs at the Interlochen Arts Academy. Sarah Graham, clinician, teacher, and director of choirs at Lewis-Clark State College in Idaho. Andrew Crane, conductor of the BYU Singers at Brigham Young University. And former students who are already surpassing their teacher, like composers Christopher Horn and Colin Payne, and up-and-coming jazz stars like Adam Dib and Dave Vessella.

Each and all of these wonderful people have far more talent than I do. Truly. I am not being self-deprecatory here, merely stating fact.

What has given me a career, and brought me to a bedsit in Dublin where I sit typing at 7:30 this chilly Tuesday morning in December, are two things: diligence and teachers.

More than raw talent, more than overweening gift, more than lucky breaks, what has let me craft a life making music is this: I’m a nerd, a grind. I try to spend at least an hour every day looking at scores. I set aside time almost every day to put something down on paper, regardless of how I feel about it (review and revision comes later). It’s no secret, really: I show up and do the work in front of me, day in and day out.

And where did I learn that? From my teachers.

I would not be who I am, or able to do what I do, without the investment poured into my soul by those who taught me. Dr Dennis Shrock encouraged me to be a choral conductor. Mr Bruce Campbell prepared me to matriculate at Westminster Choir College. Robert Simpson, Robert Carwithen, and Dr Joseph Flummerfelt showed me what conductors really do, and how to consistently pursue excellence.

Through them, I had the opportunity to learn from Wilhelm Ehmann and Robert Shaw. My dear mentor Ralph Fisher handed me over to his composition teacher, Malcolm Williamson. And Dr David Rayl took up the challenge of finishing my education at Michigan State, 25 years later (bless him for putting up with me).

What these characters, and others like my intellectual mother Dr Augusta Barrois and the unforgettable Dr Elaine Brown, gave me most of all was what I try to share with my students today: the gift of passion. Excellence was worthy, and worth pursuing, but not the final goal or the ultimate value. Passionate truth-telling was.

It still is.

“Where did all that come from,” Mom? From the hearts of those who taught me, and by working at it, one day at a time. What does it take to succeed in music? Diligent honesty in learning to passionately communicate, most of all. Or, as I regularly tell my students and choirs, “It doesn’t have to be perfect to be beautiful. But it helps.”

** Even if you’re really good, music is a hard way to make a living. But it’s still a great way to make a life that’s worth living. Just realise that if you are not practising three hours a day, every day, someone else who plays your instrument, is. And they’re competing against you for every gig that’s open. That’s reality, friends. Deal with it.

A Tune goes to Ireland

In my previous book, Theophilus, I told the story of how my little tune I Will Be The Light came into being. Here I’ll try to complete the story–but before I do, a quick word about why I call virtually all of my works “tunes,” and identify myself as a “tunesmith.”

Some composers breathe a different kind of air and inhabit a different world than the rest of us: Ockeghem, Machaut, Josquin, Byrd, Monteverdi, Schuetz, Bach, Handel, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Mahler, and others. In my mind, these are real composers. They wrote substantive compositions, works that will stand the test of time.

But the rest of us, for better or worse, just write tunes. There’s not a shred of shame in that, either. One of my heroes, Ralph Vaughan Williams, routinely referred to the music he wrote as “tunes.” If it’s good enough for Rafe (“don’t call me Ralph!”), it’s plenty good enough for yours truly.

Back to business. Here in Ireland, the national public broadcaster is Raidió Teilifís Éireann, or RTÉ for short. Like their counterparts in the US (PBS and NPR), they manage to accomplish a huge amount of good on a budget that is constantly shrinking  (they just sold a chunk of the land on their HQ campus to developers to continue to fund their operations). And like their counterparts in the UK, they sponsor performing groups (per Wikipedia):

RTÉ supports two full-time orchestras—the RTÉ Concert Orchestra and RTÉ
National Symphony Orchestra—as well as the RTÉ Vanbrugh Quartet, RTÉ Philharmonic Choir, and two youth choirs, RTÉ Cór na nÓg and RTÉ Cór Linn.
These groups present over 250 events annually, including live performances
and work in education. Currently, approximately 200 adults and children are involved in the choirs.

I Will Be The Light came to the attention of Mary Amond O’Brien, who conducts both of the youth choirs, last summer during repertoire planning for the 2018-19 season. She asked Lesley Bishop, a professional horn player who acts as artistic administrator for several of these groups (including both RTÉ Cór na nÓg and RTÉ Cór Linn) to see if the composer could be contacted.

Well, of course he could, and was.

And he was delighted to learn that his little tune would have its Irish and European premiere in September of 2018. According to Mary and Lesley (or was it Lesley and Mary? I honestly can’t remember) “it’s quickly become our signature piece for this year.” And now, at the request of the choirs and their conductor, I have taken the original chorus and piano piece and orchestrated it three other ways: for choir, strings and harp; for choir and woodwind quintet; and (combining the two) for choir and chamber orchestra.

It’s this last version that will be premiered at the National Concert Hall in Dublin this Wednesday, and repeated this coming Sunday.

Yeah, I know: I’m pinching myself.


Good Heavens–It’s Green!

I must admit that I find it more than a little ironic that many of the people I know are right now either just getting up, driving to work, or heading out to school, while I sit here sipping strong Irish tea in my airbnb in Dublin 6, also known as Ranelagh, which is essentially the city of Dublin’s answer to . . . Fabulous Funky Ferndale.

20181203_094415This bedsit is really wonderful, a great place to serve as home base for the week. Here’s my front door for the next 6 days.

And it comes with two amazing amenities: there is a back-yard reserved for smoking (you gotta love the Europeans!) and there are these strange colours outside. Green like you’ve never seen before, green as if it was the primordial green God had in mind when he said Let there be green. Shades and varieties of green, juxtaposed and tumbled all together in a crazy quilt tapestry that just warms my Spartan heart.

20181203_100152And then there’s this big yellow ball of warmth up in the sky. The locals are a bit unsure what to call it. I told them it’s known as the Sun. Here’s what it makes the skies look like.

Okay, I’m exhausted. Left Detroit 7PM (eventually) last night, got off the plane here in Dublin at 9:30AM their time — which translates into 4:30AM Detroit time. Time to grab some jet-lag-amelioration sleep. More soon. Sooner than later, actually.

20181203_100851PS Turns out that I’m way too excited
to really sleep much, yet. So I went walkabout to the local grocery store, and this is what I found. Coffee and tea are going to be fantastic!


From Michigan to Ireland … the Long Island connection

No, that’s not the path my plane is flying on Sunday. At least I don’t think so. The first leg goes from Detroit to Reykjavik and lasts about 6 hours. Then it lays over in Iceland for 2 hours, and finally arrives in Dublin Monday morning around 9:30 AM, their time.

LightThis is the story of the piece I’m going to Ireland to hear, I Will Be the Light. It’s an original work (words as well as music) and I initially composed it for the Choral Union at Wayne State University in Detroit, where I have taught for the past 12 years. Choral Union is the non-auditioned choral ensemble in Wayne State’s Music Department. It’s open to anyone who enjoys singing, music majors and non-majors alike, and I had the honor to conduct them for a semester. I loved being their conductor as much as any engagement I’ve ever had.

The words to the piece are as simple as they can be, at the start: “I will be a light in the darkness. I will be a star in the sky. I will be a voice in the silence. I will be a cry.”

A bit later, “I will be the light” becomes “We will be the light,” and finally changes to “We will be your light.” It’s a simple bit of craft, but from the very first time we sang it, the promises these statements brought out of us — a commitment to be a voice for the voiceless, to stand in solidarity with the lonely and the forgotten in our midst — touched all of us with great power and force.

To sing this piece was life-changing for us. It wasn’t any longer just entertainment, it wasn’t another collection of pretty sounds, but a honest, heart-felt pledge to be one small part of changing the world around us for the better. This original version was written for piano and choir, and it sounded like this.

As I do with much of the music I write, I shared this piece with Louise Daly O’Hanlon, who has developed and leads one of the finest high school choral programs I know, at Herricks High School in New Hyde Park, on New York’s Long Island.

There are two things you need to know about Louise. She is Irish. And she is fearless. We first met at a summer conducting workshop at my undergraduate school, Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. I was part of the summer faculty, and Louise had just agreed to move from her area of specialization — elementary music with a very Kodaly background — into the maelstrom of high school choral music.

Show Choir-04 018That’s why she was in Princeton, to touch up the conducting she’d learned in Ireland. As we got to know each other, I offered to write a piece for her new choir, thinking she’d have to think about what she wanted. Not Louise. She reached into her purse, pulled out a text, and said, “Set this.” So I did. It turned out to be the first in a number of works of mine that have become standard repertoire with Louise’s choirs over the last decade.

Louise works hard to get her students to relate their music-making to the bigger world. So when they first heard I Will Be the Light, it quickly became the capstone for what has become an annual Concert for Peace, drawing people from all the ethnic groups that live within the school district’s area. It’s an informal affair that proves the truth of the late Robert Shaw’s adage: There is no community without communion.

Next time: From Long Island to Ireland

Well, here we are!

Fancy is as fancy does, they say. So my sincere thanks to my student, colleague, and friend Kris Kehrer for bringing this site to life, especially in the final weeks of the semester! If you know Kris, thank him when you see him next. I am grateful to have talents like his in my life. We should all be so lucky.

Ireland And Me

My people (as they say over there) on my mother’s side are Irish. They, and so I, come from the Furlongs of County Wexford, a coastal county located in the Province of Leinster in southeastern Ireland. The capital city, Wexford town, is known for its medieval lanes and modern National Opera House, whose principal conductor and artistic director happens to be Maestro David Agler, who was three years ahead of me at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, back in the 1970s.

My mother’s mother, Monica Furlong, was born here in the States, in another coastal town—Baltimore in Maryland (from which I hail, as well). Her parents were immigrants; they came directly from Wexford, which means that I’m one generation too far removed to secure an Irish passport, sad to say. But I have long loved the Irish and Ireland. And the connection with Ireland is one that has marked my life in any number of significant ways over the years.

Like many Americans, my first real exposure to Ireland came through James Joyce, whose novels I met early in high school. His literary alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, was no stranger to me. I knew him well; his encounters with Jesuit retreat masters were as familiar to me as counting to ten. Much later, I set a number of Joyce’s poems in a choral cycle called “Chamber Music.”

And of course, my distant ancestor George Armstrong Custer had an Irish tune, Garry Owen, as his regimental song for the 7th Cavalry (for more on that, see here). It’s a stirring tune, and sounds like this.

Sigh. Errol Flynn as General Custer. Perfect casting. Well, anyway…

It was the poets who won my heart. G.K. Chesterton said it best in The Ballad of the White Horse,

The great Gaels of Ireland
     are the men that God made mad,
For all their wars are merry,
     and all their songs are sad.

The bards of Erin. The minstrels. The seanachies and story tellers and truth tellers, all. Theirs were the words that captured my soul. So it was no surprise to me that as a student at Westminster Choir College, I was deeply moved to sing Joseph Flummerfelt’s haunting arrangement of Danny Boy from manuscript. Listen to it here, and see if you can keep a dry eye as you do (I’ll admit it: I can’t).

When I began composing, it was the lyrical language of William Butler Yeats—playwright, patriot, and poet all in one—that I first set. All these years later, I am still haunted by two of his poems in particular: The Fiddler of Dooney, which tells of the triumph of poetry over piety, and The Lake Isle of Innisfree. If I wrote nothing but the musical settings of these two poems, I would be a very happy composer indeed.

Here’s Dooney, which has the single best bridge I have ever composed – and here’s Innisfree, the piece that first brought my music to the attention of the broader choral community worldwide.

Where is your “deep heart’s core”? What do you hear there? What songs do you hold and carry in your heart, ever and always?

There’s much more to tell, of course, including meeting my friend Louise Daly O’Hanlon and her choirs at Herricks High School, an encounter that changed my life and brought me to the piece which I’ll be hearing in Dublin, so very soon. But that can wait for now. The tale, as they say, is always in the telling.