Gerry Dignan’s “hello” when he answered the telephone for an interview was full of nuances. It exuded warmth, musicality, and openness. The Irish tenor built on his exuberant hello by singing excerpts from Irish songs from jigs to dirges throughout our conversation.
Dignan is the star of Voices Chorale’s “Irish Heartsong,” with two performances: Saturday, March 10, at Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton; and Sunday, March 11, at Anchor Presbyterian Church in Wrightstown, Pennsylvania. The 65-member ensemble is conducted by Lyn Ransom, music director, and Andrew Monath, associate conductor. An Irish band participates in the program.
Dignan solos in the premiere of a new work by Kenneth Guilmartin, composer, Voices singer, and founder of Music Together. Guilmartin’s piece, “The Music Comes Through,” grew out of a 2010 trip to Ireland organized by Dignan and his wife, Denise.
“Two summers ago Denise and I directed a trip to Ireland called ‘A Mystical, Magical Tour of Ireland,’” Dignan says. “Ken Guilmartin and Lyn Ransom came along. In County Clare, which is famous for Irish traditional music, we heard a great musicologist, P.J. Curtis, give a presentation on the history of Irish music. He spoke of different periods in Irish history when traditional music was suppressed. But the music continued as a form of resistance. England took so much away from the Irish people, but they couldn’t take away music or humor or stories.”
The Irish Heartsong concert is divided into five sections or groups. Opening with traditional favorites, it moves on to pieces from the Irish classical heritage and features works by composer Charles Stanford (1852-1924).
In the third group, Heart Songs, Dignan will take the stage with his guitar. He sings truncated versions of some of those songs into the telephone. A children’s song, “Johnny When you Die, Will You Leave to Me the Fiddle,” Dignan says, “makes you want to clap and dance.” Another, “Come by the Hills,” declares that “the cares of tomorrow must wait until this day is done.” Dignan calls the piece “peaceful and haunting.” It can be seen on YouTube.
Group four is devoted to oppression, rebellion, and war. “Ken’s piece comes in here,” Dignan says. Ten days before performance, he is still learning Guilmartin’s music. “I’ll be ready in time,” he says. “You know how life goes. You have a lot of balls in the air.”
And speaking of oppression, rebellion, and war, Dignan says his family came to Ireland during the rebellion of 1798, when France supported the Irish rebels. “Some of the French stayed in County Mayo. My family descended from a French family named Folliard. We still have big Folliard family picnics in Chicago.”
The concert ends with a section called “Better Times.” Dignan also sings here, along with audience participation.
Previously in U.S. 1 (March 3, 2010) Dignan described his voice. “I sang in the bass section of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, and I sing with the tenors in my Gospel choir. I will admit, I hear many tenor notes better than I reach them, but something about my voice makes people think I’m an Irish tenor, which is fine with me because, yes, those Irish tenors do have something magical.”
Born in 1954, Dignan says, “My life was influenced by my own seeking, by my own life experiences. From life experiences things become real.” He grew up on the south side of Chicago. “It was very segregated. There were black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods. We were afraid of violence. There were a lot of nice people, but we were all the victims of racism.
“I come from a very happy family,” Dignan says. “Mainly, we sang together. There were three sisters and two brothers. The family was musical. We sang in the car, on the way to church, and while doing dishes.” Dignan’s father was assistant to the president of the Railway Employees Union of the A.F.of L./C.I.O. His mother was a stay-at-home mom.
“My brother, Mike, had cystic fibrosis. I shared a room with him and realized the temporary nature of life. I heard his coughing episodes and wondered for how long we could ride bikes together. He was my first teacher.
‘My mother was diagnosed with scleroderma when I was in high school. We were a family with two fatal diseases. Mike died in 1974 at 22; I was 19 and a sophomore in college. A few years later my mother died. I was in despair and angry.
“I sat down and talked to God. I asked, ‘How could you do this? My mother was such a beautiful person.’ I asked God to stop my heart from beating. Then my grief was replaced by comfort, but I was still angry. I said to God, ‘Now you take my despair away. Am I nothing?’ But one day I sat down in a chair, and I became aware that my life was not coming to an end. I realized that my life should be lived with a sense of celebration. Kaboom! It compelled me to do the work that I do. Love is real. It’s the most real thing of all. I realized that through songs and dance I can create moments in which people can connect to love.”
Dignan teaches Spanish for grades four through eight in a public school in Orland Park, Illinois. “I use lots of folk songs and rhymes,” he says. “I make up rhymes to learn the names of foods in Spanish. It’s all rap and rhythm.”
He fits his overtly musical career around his full-time teaching commitments. “I sing on weekends,” he says. He is the cantor of his church in Chicago, a multicultural Catholic congregation, where he has been a member of the gospel choir for more than 25 years.
Dignan intensified his Irish connections as a by-product of studying in Barcelona during the academic year 1974-’75, when he was a college junior. “I knew that my grandmother had one sister in Ireland, and I had to go,” Dignan says. He met his paternal grandmother’s sister, Ellen Quinn, in the summer of 1975. “Aunt Ellen was born in the 1890s and had memories of Ireland and its stories and songs from before the arrival of technology. She lived in an old cottage with no running water. We would sit in the cottage, and she would tell stories about ghosts, fairies, and banshees. She taught me songs. Hers was the one branch of the family that stayed in Ireland. Her seven siblings had migrated to Chicago, and her father arranged a marriage for her in Ireland, so someone would be there for him when he got old.”
On his maternal side, Dignan’s family came to Chicago in the 1840s, during the Great Famine.
Dignan met his wife, Denise, in the choir of their high school, in 1969. “Music brought us together,” he says. They married in 1983 and live in Plainfield, a southwest suburb of Chicago.
Steeped as he is in Irish culture, Dignan is heightening his involvement. He has increased his singing of Irish songs in the Chicago area. He mentions, in particular, Gaelic Park, an Irish cultural and social center, where he has been singing in recent months.
Furthermore, he has been studying Gaelic for about a year. “I wanted to learn the Irish language because I wanted to sing old songs,” Dignan says. “I’ve studied Spanish, French, and Chinese. I sang in Hebrew and Russian with the Chicago Symphony Chorus. But the Irish is really throwing me. It’s hard to figure out the writing system. There are strange combinations of vowels and of consonants, and there are lots of silent letters.
“The class is on Saturday, and I can’t go every week. But I’m beginning to see patterns and get rewards. Gaelic is a hard language to get a handle on. I guess it’s typically Irish — elusive and shape shifting. Just when I think I have something down, it shifts on me. I guess it’s true to the spirit of the Celts. Freud is supposed to have said, ‘The Irish are the only people I know for whom psychoanalysis doesn’t do any good.’”
At the end of this academic year Dignan will reach another turning point. “I’ve been teaching 34 years,” he says. “This is my final year.”
Looking to the future, he says, “I hope to do more music. I’m very interested in storytelling. I want to celebrate the richness of Irish folk lore through the stories. What I love about the Irish is the spirit of celebrations.
“I’m also interested in learning more about early Celtic spirituality. I’m interested in ancient, pre-Christian spirituality, as well as in the early form of Celtic Christianity, which differs from Roman Christianity. There is a deep connection to nature and astounding similarities to Native American beliefs.
“I would love to teach these things. I love to teach, and I love to use musical means. I have two passions: teaching and music.”
Irish Heartsong Concert, Voices Chorale, Nassau Presbyterian Church, 61 Nassau Street, Princeton. Saturday, March 10, 8 p.m. All-Irish concert with Gerry Dignan and the 65 singers. Premiere of a new work by Kenneth K. Guilmartin based on his experience visiting County Clare in Ireland. $25. 609-397-0756 or www.voiceschorale.org.
Also, Cathedral Classics, Sunday, June 10, 7:30 p.m. Princeton University Chapel. In a first-time collaboration, the 150 singers of Voices Chorale and Bucks County Choral Society, accompanied on Princeton University Chapel’s Skinner organ, will perform choral masterworks. The 70-minute concert will be preceded by an organ prelude with John Andrew Bailey playing works of the Nigerian master composer Fela Sowande.