That venerable institution of Midlands music - the Mullingar Choral Society - had its 43rd annual concert earlier this month, and where one might logically expect an element of august gravitas on the rostrum, director Fergus Carroll and the committee felt no compunction in sitting in front of a packed cathedral beneath the baton of the prodigiously talented 28-year-old Gavin Moloney.
Like all at the top of the trade, Dubliner Maloney started playing the violin when he was all of three years of age, but chose his present, less-travelled road as a teenager.
“I made a clear decision at college that I wanted to go one way. I wanted to be a conductor, and so far, I’m very happy with the way I’ve progressed,” said Maloney in conversation with the Advertiser in the Annebrook Hotel the morning after his triumph.
“The violin would be my principal instrument. I don’t get a whole lot of time, but once in a while I get the withdrawal symptoms,” he added.
Maloney is presently assistant musical director with the Society, and uniquely amongst those who have looked after the Society - Fr Frank McNamara, Shane Brennan, and Fergus - he was educated not at St Finian’s College, Mullingar but in Old Wesley in Ballinteer, Co Dublin.
From there it was to the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester before he won a bursary to the famous Mozarteum in Salzburg in Austria.
“I kinda wanted to be a conductor since I was five or six, after I saw a conductor called Georg Solti on the telly,” he said, naming possibly the best of them all as his paragon.
Pointing out that conductors only get to conduct “when they get their hands on an orchestra”, Maloney set about making this a more likely possibility in 2004 when, at the age of just 21, successfully auditioned for the position of assistant conductor at the RTE National Symphony Orchestra (NSO ).
“Previously any ensemble I could get my hands on I would. I started on amateur choirs, youth orchestras, anything to gain some experience,” he said.
“A huge part of the work is working with people. For all the good ideas you may have, you still have to have skills in working with groups. You can study and study, but you have to work in experience.”
Gavin explained how things began moving along after he got the job with the NSO.
“Oh yeah. Things started going differently when I got that job. There’s 96 full-time people to look after,” he said.
Along with the Choral Society repertoire that was worked on in his spare time over the last six months, Gavin is also helping make a series of recordings with the NSO of living Irish composers “to record the most significant orchestral music from the last 30 years”.
“It’s a joint production from RTÉ and the Arts Council, and it will be an amazing historical record,” he added.
He went on to explain how hard the process could be and was “difficult to learn”.
“You learn a huge amount by observing, watching conductors work, and I’ve attended a huge amount of rehearsals watching different approaches,” he said.
“By watching different people you get to see what works and what doesn’t,” he added before paying tribute to his teacher from the Mozarteum, Gerhard Markson.
“He spoke about mental discipline, and how you have to assimilate the score before approaching the orchestra. You have to assimilate the composers’ intention. You have to hear it internally from the page, and basically that’s a skill that can be learned,” he pointed out.
He explained conducting as a “learned physical skill, but you have to find your own way”.
“Your gestures will be magnified as a conductor, and the less you talk the better you are,” he said.
“Basically an orchestra will judge you very quickly. They decide a lot in the first few moments, and regardless of age, they will deem you worthy or not in those first few moments,” he said.
To have an idea as to how talented he is, Maloney only got to practice with the Dublin Baroque Players, the Choral Society’s supporting orchestra, in the final week of rehearsals that had been ongoing since September, but modestly accredited their seamless assistance to their experience.
Two and a half years ago, Maloney was the first recipient of the Bryden Thompson scholarship, and won a place at Pierre Boulez’s academy in Lucerne, Switzerland. He believes the 85-year-old to be “one of the most significant composers as well as conductors in the world”.
“He is of a lineage that goes back to Debussy in the early 20th century, and it’s an amazing experience for me because some of the best musicians in the world go there to play.Witnessing him [Boulez] work gives you a meaningful picture of the last 100 years of music... I’m very lucky to get him before he dies!”
Gavin is well aware of the personal nuances within an ensemble.
“You have to find a rapport because it’s a grossly hierarchical organisation. There are leader and principals, and the most important thing is listening together. My job is to facilitate musicians to give what they’ve got. If you make that clear, people are very much more open to taking direction or suggestions,” he said.
“A composer imposes one interpretation of a text on all the members on an ensemble, and the best conductors not only convince players this is the way, but enable them to think this is the best way,” he said.
Referring to the play list from the concert, Gavin explained how the repertoire was designed to be recognised and paid tribute to the appreciative audience.
“I think it’s extraordinary here in Mullingar that you get an audience like that. I’ve never seen anything like the Mullingar Choral Society for organisation,” he said, referring to the 3,000 people who attended the night previously.
“To be frank, there are arts organisations around Ireland who could learn form the Mullingar Choral Society. I think it’s really remarkable, and it’s what draws you to this place,” he added.