From the Choirmaster: Successful Terms in Song with Rose, Bach and Evensong

By Edward E. Jones

The Harvard University Choir ended the Fall Term with a pair of carol services featuring local composer James Woodman’s exquisite The Midwife’s Tale, alongside world premieres by David Ashley White and Carson Cooman. At the end of January the group packed its bags and left chilly Cambridge for sunny Savannah, the first stop on its brief tour of the south. Concerts followed in Columbia and Charleston. Capacity crowds were in attendance in all three cities. The famed southern hospitality was in abundance throughout, and my sincere thanks go to all our host families and in particular to Dr. Murray Forbes Somerville and Dr. Jared Johnson for their help and kindness in arranging and facilitating the tour — it was a delight to catch up with these dear friends and their families. 

On our return to Cambridge we welcomed the noted choral director Dr. Barry Rose to the Memorial Church. Dr. Rose is one of the living legends of British choral music, having served on the music staff at the cathedrals of Guildford, St. Paul’s, and St. Alban’s, and he is renowned for his skills as a choral clinician. The choir was treated to several days with Dr. Rose, who charmed and entertained the group with his wit and wisdom. The visit culminated in a festival Evensong featuring William Mathias’s anthem “Let the People Praise Thee, O God,” which Dr. Rose had premiered at the Royal Wedding of Charles, Prince of Wales, and Lady Diana Spencer in St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1981. It was a thoroughly enjoyable few days, and the choir continues to reap the rewards of Dr. Rose’s insights. I hope it will be the first of many visits. 

With Easter falling so early this year, Holy Week was upon us directly after spring break, but the choir excelled in a very busy week. On Tuesday of Holy Week, the full choir presented Stainer’s moving meditation on the Passion narrative, The Crucifixion. Frank Kelley and Harris Ipock — Harvard colleagues and dear friends — were the soloists, and the congregation sang fervently in Stainer’s powerful hymns. On Wednesday evening, Associate University Organist and Choirmaster Thomas Sheehan gave a thrilling recital of Passiontide music, which included Paul de Maleingreau’s remarkable Symphonie de la Passion; and our Maundy Thursday service featured the Choral Fellows and congregational Taizé chanting. Easter morning was a thrilling occasion and included Mozart’s beautiful Sparrow Mass. Between the two services the choir gave an impromptu rendition of Stainer’s “God So Loved the World” on the steps of the church to an appreciative flock of tourists. The following weekend the Memorial Church hosted a celebration of community music-making with a gathering of local choirs of all ages. The afternoon culminated in the world premiere of a new setting of the spiritual “Golden Slippers.” 

The choir’s spring concert with the Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra was a celebration of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. It was a resplendent afternoon of music-making at its most joyous, and gave an opportunity to showcase soloists from within the choir, as well as Thomas Sheehan. Building on last year’s residency with Sir John Eliot Gardiner, and with the continuing support of scholar Christoph Wolff, the choir has been tackling some of the great masterworks of Bach, and it is a joy to further explore this remarkable body of work with our enthusiastic students. Over 600 people packed into the sanctuary on that glorious spring afternoon — a similar number to our Mozart Requiem presentation in the fall. I am delighted with the results of our community outreach because many in our audience would not have been able to attend if we had charged admission for our concerts. 

Our organ recital series — featuring George Bozeman, Jonathan Wessler, Stephen Buzard, and our own Thomas Sheehan — culminated in a first for the Memorial Church when organist Peter Krasinski improvised the accompaniment to the silent film Wings. The Dean of the Boston Chapter of the American Guild of Organists, Peter is a cherished colleague and advisor to all of us in Boston’s organ world. He has been a tireless supporter of the Harvard Organ Society, to which he acts as mentor and advocate. I am delighted that Peter shared his incredible talents with us — the church was filled with over 200 people, many of whom were students — and it was particularly fitting that he chose a film that memorializes the sacrifice of the young men who died in World War I in our own monument to the loss suffered in that sad conflict of 100 years ago. 

Harvard’s Arts First weekend was, as usual, a very busy one for the church and its musicians. The Harvard University Choir began the weekend with a Friday evening collaboration with the Bach Society Orchestra in Beethoven’s festive Choral Fantasy. Saturday’s Arts Fair saw the Choral Fellows perform Bach’s remarkable third motet, Jesu, meine Freude, as well as Purcell’s 1683 Ode to St. Cecilia, Welcome to All the Pleasures. The weekend concluded with Evensong featuring the music of Walton, Stanford, and Finzi’s glorious anthem Lo, the Full Final Sacrifice. On Ascension Day, the Choral Fellows sang Compline, and to end the year for the full choir, Patrick Gowers’s cinematic Ascension anthem, Viri Galilaei. On Pentecost (May 15) the Choral Fellows headed north to St. John’s Episcopal Church, Beverly Farms (the former parish of Tad Meyer) for a mid-afternoon recital followed by lobster rolls on the north shore! 

Our alumni outreach has been gaining great momentum in recent years under the wonderful leadership of Jim Farmer and his committee. This year during Commencement week the church hosted a UChoir alumni sing-along and reception on Friday, May 27. I hope that this will become an annual tradition — it is a lovely opportunity to make music with old friends. 

The end of an academic year is always a bittersweet time — new horizons beckon, but we say goodbye to dear friends. This year’s leavers are a remarkable group who have won great acclaim, including a number of Hoopes prizes, a Fulbright Scholarship, and several other prestigious scholarships to study in Oxford and Cambridge, and I wish them the very best in their endeavors. In addition, our wonderful music department of Thomas Sheehan and Carson Cooman has been augmented this year by the gifts of Adam Mathias, former Organ Scholar of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, who has spent the year at Harvard on a Herchel Smith Scholar. We have been blessed by his talents as conductor, organist, and singer and it has been a great joy to have him with us. 

I am very excited for the coming year, and energized by the opportunities afforded by the upcoming renovation. The highlight of the Fall Term will be a collaboration of the Harvard University Choir and the Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra directed by the renowned early music conductor Nicholas McGegan in Sanders Theatre on Sunday November 20 at 8 p.m. — it will be a magnificent occasion. The fall will soon be upon us, but I close in wishing you a very happy summer — may it be filled with music!