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Oh, Danny Boy: Choir to perform student’s original arrangement

  • At the piano
    At the piano  Robert (Bobby) LaRose '16 composed an original arrangement of the "Danny Boy," which will be performed by the William & Mary Choir.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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The hundred-year-old ballad “Danny Boy” may lean a bit more toward “shadow” than “sunshine,” but its melancholy lyrics and mournful tones don’t diminish its beauty, said William & Mary student Robert (Bobby) LaRose ’16.

“I think it’s one of the most beautiful songs in the world,” he said.

LaRose, who is majoring in both linguistics and music, recently created his own arrangement of the beloved tune, which will be performed by the William & Mary Choir May 2. The performance will be a featured part of the Spring Choral Concert, which begins at 8 p.m. in Phi Beta Kappa Hall.

{{youtube:medium:left|j_to5GeGpwQ, The W&M Choir performs LaRose's arrangement}}

“There is no more gratifying experience than witnessing the pleasure and pride the choir has taken in mastering the complexities of Bobby's score and no greater delight than seeing a young composer hear his own ideas realized in sound,” said Director of Choirs James Armstrong. “In both instances, humility, commitment and genuine service brought about the best of outcomes – the birth of a beautiful work of art.”

Although LaRose composes and plays the piano and mandolin, his only choir experience was in middle school, and he had never written a choral arrangement before. Still, he began thinking about creating one for “Danny Boy” a few years ago, “because the song really does have a large emotional meaning for me,” he said.

“I used to and still now play piano for my grandfather, who sings while I play, and ‘Danny Boy’ is one of the ones that we always used to do,” he said.

As he set out to create the arrangement, LaRose wanted to make it different from others – no small task, considering the long history and global reach of the song.

It was originally published in 1913 by Englishman Fred Weatherly who wrote the lyrics and eventually set them to the traditional Irish tune of “Londonderry Air” at the suggestion of his sister-in-law. Since then, the song has gained worldwide recognition. It was played at the funerals of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy and recorded by dozens of artists – including Elvis Presley, who reportedly said that it had been “written by angels.”

As LaRose worked on his arrangement, he sought to create harmonies that a traditional arrangement of the song might not have, and he drew inspiration from a variety of composers he had listened to throughout the years.

“I listen to a lot of [Claude] Debussy, who is considered an impressionist, and I feel that that certainly influenced how I wrote this arrangement,” he said. “I feel that it’s kind of impressionistic in some ways.”

As he neared completion of the arrangement, LaRose asked Armstrong if the choir might be interested in performing the piece.

“The W&M Choir has had a tradition of performing student works, first because it is important to sing new music of our own time and second because it makes sense to explore and learn from the artistic and creative voices of our own students,” said Armstrong.

For instance, Emerson Odango '05, a linguistics major, composed pieces for the choir throughout his four years at the university, beginning with a simple arrangement of "Silent Night," said Armstrong. As a senior, Odango composed “Chalom,” a virtuoso, unaccompanied, multi-language, 20-minute work for the W&M Choir, Women's Chorus and Botetourt Chamber Singers.

“It was a great joy to help realize Emerson's musical ideas and to watch him grow as a composer,” said Armstrong. “The students in the choirs were able to experience first-hand the love, intelligence and learning that Emerson brought to his music.”

When LaRose approached Armstrong last year, the professor asked that he play the score for him, “which he did with great care, mostly from memory,” said Armstrong.

“The score was intricate, in many ways challenging, and – as Bobby played it – clearly expressive of something deeply important and heartfelt,” he said. “I was delighted to know that another gifted student composer had found his way to us and encouraged him to complete his arrangement.”

When the choir began learning the arrangement in January, its members did so with “enthusiasm and persistence, knowing they were bringing to life a creation of a fellow student,” said Armstrong.

The piece received its debut during the choir’s spring tour in March, which included performances in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Virginia.

Armstrong wishes that LaRose could have been on the tour so that he would have seen the audiences “uniformly touched and moved by his music.”

As for LaRose, he was just touched that Armstrong and the choir found his arrangement “worthy of being performed,” he said, adding that Armstrong’s guidance will help him as he continues to create new compositions.

“As a choral director who has a lot of experience and knows what works and what doesn’t work in choral composing, he’s given me a lot of feedback that I can consider for future projects,” LaRose said.

When May 2 arrives, LaRose will be sitting in the audience at Phi Beta Kappa Hall when his arrangement gets its on-campus debut. More than nerves or excitement that night, LaRose said he’ll likely be feeling thankful.

“I’ll be more touched than anything. I still feel very grateful that I have this opportunity,” he said. “Here’s something I wrote that is being performed by a William & Mary ensemble. That, in and of itself, is special to me.”

Tickets for the May 2 concert, which will include performances by the W&M Choir, Botetourt Chamber Singers and Women's Chorus, are $3 for students and $10 general admission. Tickets may be purchased through the PBK Box Office.