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First Church Becomes Hermitage


The late Steven Paulus (file photo)
The late Stephen Paulus (file photo)

On Sunday at 4pm in First Church, Cambridge, the Harvard University Choir, under the direction of Edward Elwyn Jones, will present Stephen Paulus’s church opera The Three Hermits. Based on a short story by Leo Tolstoy, the opera features a colorful cast of characters richly portrayed through Paulus’s striking music. The opera focuses on the themes of humility, tolerance, and servitude, making it of particular relevance in our current climate. The performance features soloists from the Harvard University Choir, alongside local favorites David McFerrin and Clare McNamara, and is free and open to the public.

In response to our questions Jones submitted the following:

It’s a wonderful piece and Paulus’s untimely death in 2014 was a great loss to the American musical scene; last time we did the Hermits he came and worked with the choir, which was a real treat.

We are not doing any staging for this performance—I think the music and words speak volumes by themselves—though we will be utilizing the spatial effects of First Church. I don’t think the libretto is preachy at all—Leo Tolstoy was, after all, rather an anarchist Christian—but the theme of a figure in authority being humbled by the humility of everyday folk is—without wanting to be too obvious—quite interesting (and hopefully even prescient) in this rather strange election year.

I see a lot of parallels between this work and Britten’s church parables, and even more importantly, the example of Britten’s St. Nicholas—the beginning of the Paulus is sonically reminiscent of that work. And I think both composers believed strongly in the power of communal (and amateur in the best and truest sense of the word) music-making within society.

Edward Elwyn Jones (file photo)
Edward Elwyn Jones (file photo)

Paulus wrote very fluently in almost every genre, though he is particularly remembered for his operas and church music—this work marries both genres very well. The writing is lyrical with moments of great poignancy and drama; the choral music is so well-written, and the closing section of the work—the famous Pilgrims’ Hymn—has become Paulus’s best-known work. The orchestration is also very colorful: it’s for chamber forces (again taking off from Britten’s lead, I think) and he uses the solo winds to great colorful effect.

The Three Hermits was commissioned by House of Hope Presbyterian Church, MN, and premiered there in 1997, with a text by Michael Dennis Browne (after Tolstoy).

The performance takes place in in First Church because Memorial Church, the home to the Harvard University Choir, is closed for the semester for renovations. “It’s lovely to be performing outside of its walls, particularly in First Church, whose aesthetic (slightly Byzantine) is very well-suited to this piece.”

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