Last week we lost David Clark Isele, composer, conductor, teacher and friend. I first met David as a shy freshman at the University of Notre Dame, where he had just begun as a professor. We started at the University at the same time, just after it plunged – without much planning – into co-education. I was a member of that tiny first class of women admitted as freshman – about 300 women among 6000 men; he, along with Sue Seid, had been freshly hired from the Eastman School of Music to add depth to a music department that had, prior to that, focused primarily on the marching band and the exclusively male Glee Club. He was 9 years older than I was, one of the youngest members of the faculty, gifted, patient, engaging and a great deal of fun.
David only directed the Chapel Choir, in which I sang, for one year, and then switched to the larger Chorale and the Glee Club. He continued, however, to play the organ, guest conduct, and as composer-in-residence, write psalm and mass settings for us. That first year, some members of the clergy requested that the Chapel Choir remain at the University over spring break in order to sing all of the Holy Week services at the cathedral, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Vigil at midnight on Saturday, and then high mass on Easter Sunday morning. This turned into something of a choral marathon, intense rehearsing all week of the different anthems and mass settings, eating together, laughing, and planning a somewhat mad party – with entertainment – for Easter Sunday afternoon, once it was all over. Especially poignant and memorable was the Good Friday service, done traditionally without musical accompaniment. The priests processed in to the dramatic beat of a single deep drum. We learned – this was odd considering the setting – an a capella four part version of the spiritual “Were You There?,” which I think we sang during communion. The experience of that reflective and pained music in a huge, silent and completely packed church was indelible and very moving. The Chapel Choir with David and Sue at the helm was an extraordinarily rich experience.
I might not have known David any better that any fond student does a generous teacher, had I not been hired to act as a sort of production assistant for a liturgical music workshop that was conducted by the Music Department the following summer. Without the constraints of daily classes and academic pressure, the atmosphere was relaxed and we were thrown together a great deal. Doing the “gopher” jobs, copying music, collating scores, arranging rehearsals rooms, organizing dinners, I got to know David as a person as well as professor. He was a snappy dresser – who else could wear a Nehru jacket without irony? He drove, as I recall, a Volkswagen Bug. He loved to cook and was something of a gourmand. He loved wine, good company, entertaining, and laughing. One of the music teachers in attendance, from San Antonio, started calling him “Iselito” and so he remained to me for the rest of his life. His messages on my answering machine always started with “Iselito here!”
David left us too soon, but not before – to my joy – he was able to make the journey to New York in 2014 to hear me sing with my current chorus in a concert at Carnegie Hall. Supportive and caring and fun through the years, we had breakfast the next morning and laughed over old times, as if nearly 40 years had not passed at all. If you look him up on the internet, it is primarily as a composer that he is known, and congregations around the country will undoubtedly be singing his music for years to come. Certainly he was the first to expose me to the excitement and honor of premiering a new work from a living composer But it is as a choral conductor that I knew and loved him most. He influenced me and thousands of other students, encouraging us to care about singing together in a community, to share the gift of music with others, to do one’s best and honor the music, and to trust that simply in so doing, the world is a better place. David, I hope that they’re serving turbot pilaf and cold gin and tonics in heaven. I know that the best angels are going to line up to sing with you.
©Melody S. Owens, Poets Sinews, 2016. Reuse with permission.