A remarkable year

Choirmaster Edward Jones rehearses with University Choir at Paine Hall

By Edward E. Jones

It has been a remarkable year for the Memorial Church, during which the Harvard University Choir has flourished. Due to the renovation project, the Fall Term was spent in diaspora: services and performances were held in a wide variety of venues, each with their own challenges and benefits. The choir and the music program have grown as a result of our peregrinations.

Auditions for the choir were held in the opulent surroundings of the Paine Hall — the music department’s concert hall, named for the first University organist and choirmaster — which became home-base for our weekly rehearsals. Radcliffe Yard’s Knafel Center was the setting for Sunday services and the choir was not inhibited by its lack of acoustic in tackling some challenging repertoire; in addition, our wonderful associate organist and choirmaster, Tom Sheehan, performed a variety of accompaniments and solo literature on the electronic Rogers organ, which was duly moved into place every week. Morning Prayers in Holden Chapel was quite charming, utilizing both our Klop chamber organ and the piano within; and Compline in Andover Chapel was a delight — one of Harvard’s hidden gems for choral music.

In addition to a music list that included Bach’s Der Geist hilft unser Schwachheit auf and Elgar’s Great Is the Lord, the choir presented two concerts: Stephen Paulus’s moving church opera The Three Hermits in the beautiful surroundings of First Church, Cambridge; and Handel’s L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato in Sanders Theatre with the Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra. The latter concert was directed by renowned conductor Nicholas McGegan, who worked with our groups during a week-long residency as Christoph Wolff Distinguished Visiting Artist: the final concert was a glorious end to an informative and exciting week, and featured a distinguished roster of guest soloists.

The busy term ended with a glorious pair of carol services held in the stunning surroundings of St. Paul Church, Harvard Square. One of the great acoustic spaces in Boston, it was a thrill to sing there to capacity congregations, and my thanks go to the church staff and in particular to Father Kelly and John Robinson. These services ended with a tribute to our dear friend and colleague Harry Huff, who died in November, with his powerful arrangement Glory, Hallelujah, which featured UChoir alum Lumumba Seegars ’09 in the solo role. 

The choir returned in mid-January for a tour to Reykjavic, Iceland. We were graciously hosted by members of the Hamrahlíð youth choir, under the leadership of its inspirational director of fifty years, Þorgerður Ingólfsdóttir: it became readily apparent that much of the population of the city had gone through this wonderful program. The beautiful Icelandic hymn, Heyr, himna, Smidur soon became a favorite of all our singers and by the end of the trip we had sung it in the remarkable Hallgrimskirkja and also in Skaholt Cathedral, the church for which it was written. The tour was a rich and rewarding cultural exchange and a transformative one for our choir: we have reaped the rewards of this adventure since our return. 

Group shot of Harvard University Choir on tour in Iceland

The semester proper began back in the Memorial Church: a wonderful homecoming for us all, and a welcome new experience for the members of the choir who joined in the fall. Our students quickly took advantage of the new Student Oasis, and the choir’s weekly tea-times became more adventurous thanks to the state-of-the-art kitchen. The new music suite is a fantastic addition to the department: the choir room now features recording capabilities and much needed storage space, and a dedicated practice room ensures space for voice lessons and private study. Contributions from parents of former UChoristers made this wing possible, and I am personally grateful for their friendship, generosity and support. 

Once again, Dr. Barry Rose — formerly of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London — joined us for a three-day residency culminating in a glorious Evensong, featuring Howells’s St. Paul’s Evening Canticles, and Stanford’s powerful For Lo, I Raise Up. Barry brings the choir to new heights every time he comes and I cherish his friendship, wit and wisdom.

Our official Reopening Concert was a program of contemporary American music given on Sunday, Mar. 5. Composer in Residence Carson Cooman produced a gripping new organ concerto, Be Ye Broken, played by Tom Sheehan at Fisk Op. 139 with the choir and string orchestra on the chancel steps. The concert also featured Howard Hanson’s rarely performed Concerto for Organ, Harp, and Strings and two powerful choral cycles: Alfred Fedak’s Last Verse, to words taken from New-England gravestones; and Chris DeBlasio’s haunting The Best-Beloved, written as the composer was dying from AIDS. 

Holy Week began with an outdoor recital by the talented Cape Town Youth Choir — on the final leg of its American tour — followed by a procession around Harvard Yard’s Tercentenary Theatre. The week continued with another choral concert, this time featuring Carson Cooman’s moving chamber opera Thieves. Easter was celebrated with Mozart’s glorious Coronation Mass, as well as an impromptu recital on the church’s south steps between the two services. 

Sunday procession

The main concert of the term was an Arts First performance of Haydn’s The Creation, featuring the period-instrument ensemble Grand Harmonie, and two UChoir alum soloists, Liv Redpath ’14 and Jonas Budris ’06. It was a wonderful occasion: this remarkable music was brought to life by the choir’s fervent singing and the amazing sounds of the period instruments. I will long cherish the look on our young singers’ faces when they first heard the incredible contra-bassoon blast in Haydn’s famous depiction of the “heavy beasts.”

The Harvard University Choir completed its duties with a service of Choral Evensong on May 7 (featuring music of Stanford, Bairstow, and UChorister Fraser Weist ’18) followed by a festive end-of-year dinner; the Choral Fellows closed the year on Sunday, May 14 with an afternoon recital at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Beverly Farms. And on the Friday during Commencement Week, the church hosted a Harvard University Choir sing-along and reception. 

It has been a wonderful year for our music program which, in addition to the events of the Harvard University Choir, has sponsored organ recitals, visiting choirs, and distinguished guest artists. The end of an academic year is always a bittersweet time — new horizons beckon, but we say goodbye to dear friends: I wish all our leavers the very best in all their endeavors. I am energized, however, by our plans for the coming year, which include a year-long celebration of Claudio Monteverdi (including performances of Orfeo and the Vespers), whose 450th birth-anniversary occurs this year. I am also delighted to announce another UChoir reunion in the fall (Oct. 13-15), during which we will officially launch the Harvard University Choir Alumni Special Interest Group. 

As I reflect on the past year, I realize that time spent outside the walls of the Memorial Church has made me appreciate more fully the glories within, and the importance of this institution within the life of the University’s past, present, and — I believe — future. Serving alongside such remarkable colleagues as Tom Sheehan and Carson Cooman continues to be an honor and a blessing, and daily I gain inspiration from our extraordinary students who are surely the manifestation of educating minds, expanding hearts, and enriching lives.