Saturday 2 March 2019

Creating a contemporary choral tradition in Ireland: Desmond Earley and The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin

Desmond Earley and The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin (Photo Mark Molloy)
Desmond Earley and The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin (Photo Mark Molloy)
When I first heard the disc Invisible Stars, the debut disc from Desmond Earley and the Choral Scholars of University College Dublin it was something of a surprise [see my review] as the repertoire, with its strong folk/traditional emphasis, seemed to rather unlike what you would expect from a traditional collegiate choir. In fact the choir, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, is not quite like a traditional collegiate choir, and very much has its own sound and repertoire. I recently met up with Desmond Earley, the choir's founding artistic director, to find out more about the group and learn something of their new disc, Perpetual Twilight which has just been released on Signum Classics

Desmond Earley
Desmond Earley
Desmond comments that the new disc was planned on a 'wave of pleasurable astonishment in the wake of the success of the previous disc', and with deprecating honesty he comments that he feels that the choir now 'know what they are doing', and know more about themselves.

The music on Perpetual Twilight combines contemporary pieces with folk and more popular-inspired works. Desmond feels the disc has layers of narrative to the sequence of works, a joyous beginning progresses through moments of darkness only to come out the other side. So whilst there are more hopeful works on the disc, at its centre is Elegy by Bill Whelan (who wrote Sun, moon and stars on the group's previous disc), which is very much a dark night of the soul as it deals with a family that perished in a Lough in Donegal. It is a programme that Desmond hopes will make people look into themselves.

Whereas the earlier disc concentrated on more contemporary folk arrangements, the new disc has more substance when it comes to contemporary music, though there are still folk arrangements too. New pieces on the disc include those by Colin Mawby, Timothy Stephens, Natasa Paulberg, an Australian/Irish composer, Ivo Antognini, and Eoghan Desmond along with Desmond's own.

One of Desmond's ambitions is to create something of a contemporary choral tradition in Ireland. He points out that, though Handel's Messiah was premiered in Dublin in 1741, the subsequent choral tradition was continued in the Anglican mould (think Charles Villiers Stanford), and that the Gaelic folk tradition is very much separate, being more about monophonic song performed in the parlour or the bar. But there is now a contemporary choral tradition which has very much blossomed, and central to this are the activities of the Contemporary Music Centre Ireland (CMC) and its publishing via CMC Editions.

Desmond Early and The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin (Photo Mark Molloy)
Desmond Early and The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin
(Photo Mark Molloy)
Another thread running through the music on the disc is the idea of light and star-light, which Desmond rather poetically hopes will evoke that rather particular light which he feels you get in Ireland. Another thread is what Desmond calls 'hidden familiarity', a number of the pieces will be familiar to listeners in other forms. These include a new version of Danny Boy (a song with lyrics by an English writer, set to a traditional Irish tune), which Desmond has placed after Bill Whelan's Elegy as a way of bringing the listener back after the darkness of Elegy (and Desmond points out that in Ireland O Danny Boy is often sung at funerals).

The disc ends with Colin Mawby's settings of James Joyce, poems taken from Chamber Music. In a letter to his brother Joyce wrote about Chamber Music 'It is a young man's book. I felt like that. It is not a book of love-verses at all, I perceive. But some of them are pretty enough to be put to music. I hope someone will do so, someone that knows old English music such as I like', so Desmond thought it would be interesting to have them set by an English composer and asked Mawby (who was the choral director at Radio Telefís Éireann from 1981 to 2001)

Desmond's own piece on the disc, Body of the Moon was in fact commissioned by an American West Coast radio station to be played during the total eclipse, and people in fact drove into the desert to experience the eclipse, opening their car doors and playing the radio with Desmond's piece accompanying the eclipse!

Desmond was originally an organ scholar at University College Dublin (UCD). In fact this is a non-denominational institution and though it does have a chapel building, this does not have a generous acoustic and chapel life is not central to the institution the way it is in Oxbridge colleges. So the choral scholarships existed simply to create a body of singers for occasional services. It was Desmond's idea to create a choir, and in this he was supported by Keiron McDermott, then the Dean of Residency and Chaplain at UCD. The group soon began to be asked to perform at private events and act as cultural ambassadors for UCD, and they quickly went from singing in church to the concert hall.

Desmond Early and The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin (Photo Mark Molloy)
Desmond Early and The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin
(Photo Mark Molloy)
There was no thought of doing recordings until Desmond invited Nigel Short, of Tenebrae, over to do a workshop with the choir. Nigel was so impressed with the choir's sound that he suggested recording to them and approached Signum on the choir's behalf. The choir initially went into the studio and recorded whatever was in their repertoire at the time, a mixture of folk arrangements, Rachmaninov and more, and on the advice of the record company they went back into the studio to concentrate on the Irish repertoire, and out came their first disc Invisible Stars. This was released in June 2017, and was Signum's best selling disc.

Desmond started out as a boy treble, singing in a men and boys choir at a Dominican priory at Tallaght; the first piece he sang in was Britten's Missa brevis. Desmond describes the priory's organist as a proper organist and a great educator. After his voice broke Desmond studied piano and organ, and then harpsichord with David Adams which he enjoyed. He got into writing and arranging because he was asked, a last minute request for an arrangement for the RTE Concert Orchestra started things off, and he found he enjoyed doing it and rising to the challenge. He did a doctorate at Royal Irish Academy of Music and also studied in Vienna. But the work with the Choral Scholars of UCD expanded, and success for the choir has bred demands on his time so that he is now full time.  He still plays the harpsichord though, and recently directed Messiah from the harpsichord for Portland Baroque Orchestra. Composition is something that he would like to devote more time to, and he currently has plans pieces which he would like to develop.

His work with the choir would not be possible without the singers commitment to a significant work level, and also their enjoyment, and he feels that they have learned that hard work can bring satisfaction.

The choir is made up of registered students at UCD, three of the current group are studying music bu the rest are studying a whole variety of subjects. For the new disc, Desmond invited back six alumni, now aged 24-25 to join the ensemble. Desmond aims for a warm blended sound with the choir, something open, unaffected and youthful but which has support. He does wonder whether there is something about Irish voices, or the Irish accent which creates a different quality to the sound. It is not as strong a sound as some choirs, more intimate but with power when necessary. The group also has some significant solo voices, not just in the classical tradition, but those with experience of traditional music and the group currently has at least two competition winning traditional singers in its ranks.

Desmond also likes using instruments with the ensemble, feeling that these give a timbre which is completely to the choral texture. But the converse to this is that making the recording involved expense and tricky logistics to get everyone into the studio, but he hopes people are entertained by it and refreshed.

Desmond Earley and The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin (Photo Leslie Van Stelten)
Desmond Earley and The Choral Scholars of University College Dublin (Photo Leslie Van Stelten)
This year the choir celebrates its 20th anniversary and there will be a gala concert at the National Concert Hall in Dublin, and Eriks Esenvalds is writing them a piece.

15 March 2019 - Desmond Early & the Choral Scholars of University College Dublin, Imagine Ireland: Songs of Home, the ensemble's debut at Carnegie Hall, New York
See the choir's website for the full list of events.

On disc:
Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Dame Emma Kirkby's 70th birthday concert at the Wigmore Hall (★★★★★) - concert review
  • A very modern Robin Hood: Dani Howard's new opera at The Opera Story (★★★★) - opera review 
  • Sparkling delight: Coloratura Offenbach from Jodie Devos (★★★★)  - CD review
  • Celebration time: Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen coincided with the 140th anniversary of the Grand Théâtre de Genève (★★★★★) - Opera review 
  • Trapped in the underworld with a surly teenager: Gavin Higgins & Francesca Simon's The Monstrous Child  (★★★★½) - opera review 
  • Contemporary yet romantic: Noah Mosley's Aurora debuts at Bury Court Opera's swansong season (★★★½) - opera review
  • The idea of bringing to life something which has never been alive before: my interview with conductor Jessica Cottis - interview
  • Britten & Mendelssohn violin concertos from Sebastian Bohren & Royal Liverpool Philharmonic (★★) - CD review
  • The full Egmont: Beethoven's incidental music linked by extracts of Goethe's play (★★★½) - CD review
  • Sweeter than Roses: music of Purcell & his contemporaries from Anna Dennis & Sounds Baroque  - (★★) CD review
  • Sung Poetry: Kitty Whately & Simon Lepper - From the Pens of Women (★★) - concert review
  • Choral music for Advent and Christmas from Portsmouth  - CD review
  • Home

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