The Harvard University Choir was founded by John Ferris in 1958. During the 10 years I was a member, it was a constant source of inspiration, learning, and companionship. Rehearsals and performances (which were weekly and sometimes daily) were always impassioned. John had a deep understanding of both the music and the people he inspired. At his memorial service last fall, 120 grateful alumni of the choir, most of whom have managed to keep both music and singing a large part of their lives, gathered to sing their hearts out under the new Harvard Organist and Choir Master, Edward Elwyn Jones.
On Sunday, April 26, at Harvard’s Memorial Church, Jones showed that John’s spirit is more than alive and well. The choir ,now 53 strong, sang a brilliant memorial to John through Handel’s Saul, with the help of Phoebe Carrai’s Harvard Baroque Chamber Orchestra. The choir was superb, singing mostly from memory with rapt attention to the conductor. It was a constant joy to see their faces enlivened by their communal effort. The blend was perfect, the articulation and intonation equally so.
The orchestra, with the unstoppable Sara Darling as concertmistress, was up to the task. The violins were both lyric where needed and hard as nails when accompanying some of the nastier parts. The soloists were uniformly wonderful. Amanda Forsythe was alluring as Michal, Aaron Sheehan radiated simple honesty as Jonathan. Nathaniel Watson was convincing as Saul – driven mad by envy and the mad dance of the tubalcain, played here on the glockenspiel. Martin Near was a winsome and lyrical David, Janet Brown a spiteful Merab, and Michael Barrett a fabulous witch. A surprise was Jonathan Roberts – a choir member – with a strong bass rendition of Doeg and the ghost of Samuel.
The piece, written in 1739, is late Handel – written after his own bout with mental illness – and shows his full powers of melody and harmony as adjuncts to a fine story. This is some of the most beautiful and moving music Handel ever wrote, and deserves more exposure than it gets. The story is fierce, and sometimes problematic to these modern ears. Jonathan’s pleas for rationality and piety over rank and privilege are touching. David’s ferocious killing of the Amalekite and his curse on their race is chilling, as is the paean to supporting a king – the anointed of god – regardless of his deeds. But the Harvard groups rose above the fray to delight the audience, which responded with a prolonged standing ovation.