University Choir lift voices to new music in Sunday concert celebrating reopening of Memorial Church

February 28, 2017
Manuscript of Be Ye Broken by Carson Cooman

By Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications

With the renovation of the Memorial Church during Fall Term, the Harvard University Choir stretched their voices into new venues across the campus. Auditions and rehearsals were in Paine Hall, the Fall Concert at Sanders Theatre and the Carol Services took place in St. Paul Church.

But after the extended tour of Harvard Square, the University Choir was back home inside the historic sanctuary Sunday (March 5) celebrating the reopening of Memorial Church.

“It is a joy to be making music once again in the beautiful surroundings of the Memorial Church,” said Edward Elwyn Jones, Gund University Organist and Choir Master. “The performance will be especially thrilling for our new members, who are yet to experience a concert within its walls.”

More than 250 people attended the concert, the first major performance inside the church since it was closed for renovation following Commencement last spring. Within the span of seven months, the entire ground level was gutted and renovated into a student oasis, meeting rooms, new kitchen and staff offices. A new energy-efficient heating and cooling system was installed, and the entire building was made more accessible to people with disabilities.

For the University Choir, the renovation also provided a new rehearsal space and music suite. Emma Woo ’17, a fellow with the University Choir, said members of the choir are “overjoyed” to be back in Memorial Church.

“It has been such a pleasure to get a feel for what this new space offers,” said Woo. “The choir room is stunning and so efficiently designed, making it easy to rehearse and grow as a group. As for the student oasis and meeting rooms, I am discovering something new and exciting at every turn and I already feel at home.”

Members of Harvard University Choir rehearse in new choir room

The concert will not only mark the reopening of the church, but it will also debut a new piece of music by Memorial Church’s prolific composer Carson Cooman. The piece, Be Ye Broken, is a composition for solo organ, strings and chorus.

Cooman, Memorial Church’s Research Associate and Composer in Residence, said the title has its origins in a Shaker song called “Fall on the Rock” that dates back to the 1840s. The text speaks to a common theme in Shaker theology; a call for humility. But the music also is a commentary on the uncertainty in the nation and around the world, he said.

“It’s an abstract instrumental piece. It’s fairly dark and turbulent, which is more of a reflection of the current world and national zeitgeist I guess,” he said. “It is an abstract so it’s doesn’t make a statement per se, but music is good at mapping emotional territory.”

The piece will feature the musical skills of Thomas Sheehan, the Associate University Organist and Choirmaster at the Memorial Church and the University Choir.

Cooman, who has written scores of compositions for the church in the past decade, wrote the new piece during the Fall Term. He said his process for creating music is steady and deliberate. It begins with discussions about length, focus, and instrumental voices. Then he maps out the musical structures of the piece in his head before penciling out notes on paper.

The pinnacle of the creative effort is the performance, he said.

“To me the performance is just the natural step of what happens, in the same way that if you painted a painting and show it in a gallery or sell it to someone, that is the culminating step” said Cooman. “I think that some people think that you are shocked or surprised when you hear it live ­— and it’s like well ‘no’ because that was always what was going to happen. It’s enjoyable and gratifying because the whole process is something I like doing and being part of that final step in translating the stack of paper into sound is part of that process.”

Carson Cooman, Research Associate in Music and Composer in Residence

The concert is scheduled for 4 p.m. in the sanctuary of Memorial Church. It is free and open to the public. Light refreshments will be available following the performance.

“It's always a thrill to present first performances of new repertoire, particularly works by our remarkable composer in residence, Carson Cooman,” said Jones. “I asked Carson to write a work for organ and strings—showcasing the incredible talents of our Associate Organist, Thomas Sheehan—but that also included vocal sections: pushing the boundaries of the traditional concerto repertoire, this work will surely find a home in many church music programs.”