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Marvin’s Ninth Inning


In 2010, following his retirement after 32 years as Director of Choral Activities at Harvard University, Jameson (Jim) Marvin founded the Jameson Singers, an SATB choir of some 70 voices, which draws  experienced amateur singers across Boston (and includes many of Marvin’s former Harvard students). The ensemble’s 9th season will be Marvin’s final one. Exuberant and witty, Marvin discusses, among other things, the season to come: “Wondrous Light” holiday concerts on December 1st and 8th featuring works from early Renaissance to the present day (including some of Marvin’s own compositions and arrangements) and next May’s performance of the mighty German Requiem by Brahms.

GL: In your forthcoming book “Emotion in Choral Singing: Reading Between the Notes” (which will be released December 12th!) you write I believe choral music has the power to draw us into a spiritual realm, a transcendence that allows a fleeting moment of peace.” This is quite the statement!

JM It seems to me there’s a reason for choral music, a real purpose. And, simply put, it is easier to express emotion with text and singing. Of course instrumental music also has the great power to express emotion, but I find that the inclusion of text and the use of the human voice allows choral music to lift us out of our everyday experience. I believe strongly in that mission – an experience so momentary and yet so valuable. We are singing to inspire and also, to an extent, to educate. We are blessed as human beings to have the capacity to express emotion through singing or through music period. And I think humanity needs that.

Singing to educate…do you see yourself primarily as an educator?

No. I definitely see myself as an educator, but not primarily. I see myself as having the ability to get a choir sounding good! When it works, everyone — be they students, professionals, amateurs— gets so much out of it. It comes back to what I wrote before about transcendence. It’s so important for the musical experience to create inspiration. But I don’t do that, the experience that we work together to create does. When I retired from Harvard there were literally 500 past students at my final concert. They had learned with me, alongside all those other classes that they took. But they loved what we did, what we made together. In many ways we were learning side by side, creating side by side. But I’m not primarily an educator. I’m primarily a musician.

Boston has so many choral groups. What do you want audiences to associate most with this choir?

Automatically I can’t help but want them to associate us with a fantastic sound, variety of tone colors, and produce something that allows the audience to engage with the structure of the music. It should be balanced and it should be expressive. That’s the goal. And I think audiences come hoping for that. What’s being expressive? Well it’s simple. When the music goes up or comes down, it changes by nature. We are not a “specialist” choir, but I do want to do Renaissance music for 21st-century audiences. There are virtually no large-scale amateur choirs, singing lots of Renaissance repertoire, I think in part because they are intimidated by what they possibly should be doing, as opposed to what they naturally would do, what they musically would do. They’re simply afraid of being wrong. And I understand the feeling. But our ultimate goal with this music is to get some ideas about how to be musical, expressive, how to make it really fit. That confidence in musicality is so important. That, and the lost art of rubato. No one does rubato anymore! Audiences should associate a choir with a particular sound. They have to know what the choir sounds like… in our case offering this quality of transcendence that can and does occur in an especially good performance where the audience is really with you. That relates to programming.

How do you program a concert or a season?

It’s all about balance and contrast.  Although I would say that my particular specialty would be Renaissance music, over the course of my career it’s been a pretty equal balance from the 15th century to the present. I often include folk songs, which I happen to love…and of course at this time of year, Christmas carols! In addition to five carols that the audience will sing with us at the upcoming holiday concerts, I have also programmed a beautiful Swedish carol as well as two of my own arrangements of traditional songs. Of course there are also some very fine 21st-century works too, like Rindfleisch’s Veni Sancte Spiritus with such interesting rhythmic patterns and a great setting of the text, two among many reasons I’ve programmed it. It is a work well worth singing and hearing.

Does the time of year influence your programming choices?

Well, of course! For this time of year especially, I like festive music, and creating a program which then transforms the listener from one emotion to the next with variation and contrast. When I made this particular program, it’s very joyful, but also simple. I really like simplicity. In many programs, holiday or otherwise, I like to group pieces in 2s or 3s and they’re grouped in various ways —  far beyond simply key relationships.

Do you have a ‘golden rule’ when it comes to programming though?

I want to take the audience for a ride along the way, an emotional ride – so I am thinking of the music and text as emotional conduits, providing a sense of introspection, reflection and all that will relate to the usual musical elements: melody, harmony, structure, rhythm and so on, within the composition. This helps the audience to organize the experience in their own minds. It also helps the singers!

Making programming choices is making sure you illuminate things. And of course: Will I like it? Will they (that is, the singers) like it?! I ask myself “Why did the composer do that?!” It inspires me to do a piece of music if I understand WHY a composer decided to do something.

You’ve programmed one of your own works (God Thoughts) for this concert…

Yes. I think this is the world premiere! I’ve only done one other of my own pieces with the Jameson Singers. I like to write, I majored in composition as an undergraduate, which over the years lead me to writing a lot of folk song arrangements, about 70 all up. And then lately I’ve been doing Christmas carol arrangements (two of which you will hear at our upcoming concerts). I thought that for my final Christmas concert, I can do this (God Thoughts). I also wrote the text.  It’s nature that mostly inspires me, particularly the mountains. I recently wrote about 15 poems actually. I’ve always written poetry. I think creating text and music go hand in hand.

Your final concert with the Jameson Singers (on May 10th, 2019) will feature the Brahms German Requiem. That’s quite an undertaking! Why the Brahms?

Well I could have done Monteverdi Vespers, Bach St Matthew Passion… but the Brahms is very special to me. I did it three times at Harvard. And yes, it is fatiguing… but it fits our group so well. I love it, they love it. It is the right choice. Brahms’s affinity with polyphony and counterpoint comes from Bach. I like polyphony, period! Where’s it gone?! The Brahms is just one of my favorites. The last time I did it, I remember quite vividly studying it again – there’s always something new to learn, to notice that you never saw before, something to look at differently.

The Jameson Singers present “Wondrous Light” on December 1st at First Church, Cambridge and December 8th at Hancock Church, Lexington. Both concerts commence at 8pm.

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