Ferris Chorale marks four decades by reflecting on its past and looking to the future
Forty years ago when composer William Ferris and tenor John Vorrasi founded the William Ferris Chorale they weren’t thinking about establishing one of Chicago’s most durable musical ensembles. They simply wanted to bring choral music by contemporary composers, including Ferris, to local audiences.
When the 63-year-old Ferris collapsed and died of a massive heart attack during a rehearsal of the Verdi Requiem at St. Thomas the Apostle church in 2000, it wasn’t clear that the chorale would survive. Arts organizations built on the vision of a charismatic founder often flounder when that visionary is no longer around.
But next Sunday an invigorated Ferris Chorale kicks off its 40th anniversary season with the group’s popular Christmas program in La Grange (repeated Dec. 10 at Loyola University where they are ensemble-in-residence). Paul French, who became the chorale’s music director in 2005, conducts.
“The scene here was old music,’’ said Vorrasi, recalling the dominant repertoire of local choruses when he and Ferris launched the William Ferris Chorale in 1971. Interest in pre-Baroque music had swept the classical music world in the 1960s, and ensembles were experimenting with performing 14th through 16th century music on period instruments and with singers emulating the pure, more distilled pre-Baroque sound.
“Renaissance bands, music of the late Middle Ages,” said Vorrasi. “Every time you turned around, Bill would say, ‘Oh God, another new old music group.’ We took the road less traveled, if you will, one that was more attuned to what his spirit was. Yes, we did Renaissance stuff because it was a good thing to build a chorus with. But one of our early concerts was an all-David Diamond program, in 1975.”
That all-Diamond concert, performed in honor of a distinguished American composer on his 60th birthday, turned out to be typical Ferris Chorale programming. Diamond, who died in 2005, composed in a basically tonal style that was overshadowed by the serialist, dissonant music that dominated the classical music world between the 1950s and the 1970s. Ferris’s own music is similarly rooted in definable melodies and clear harmonies, though with a hint of an edgy, 20th-century sensibility.
Based at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in the Lakeview neighborhood where Ferris was music director, the chorale built a loyal audience. They trusted Ferris’s taste in new music and the mix of old and new that he chose for the chorale’s seasons of three or four different programs.
Among the composers who came to Chicago for chorale performances of their music were Dominick Argento, John Corigliano, Lee Hoiby, William Mathias, Gian Carlo Menotti, Vincent Persichetti, Ned Rorem, William Schuman and Peter Schickele.
Season after season the chorale performed unfamiliar works by respected composers who were not exactly household names. Ferris Chorale concerts became the place to discover music we didn’t know we needed to hear, to round out our understanding of composers from Argento to William Schuman.
“We really did have an apostolic zeal about this,” said Vorrasi, “and it’s carried on. We sort of catered to the living dead, those composers who got short shrift in that horrible time in the 1960s and ‘70s when [classical music] was all so academic. These people were giants, and they were unjustly disregarded.”
Last year the Ferris Chorale took up residence on Loyola University’s North Side campus, performing in the glitteringly restored, Art Deco Madonna della Strada Chapel overlooking Lake Michigan. The chorale was ready to move on from Mt. Carmel Church, and Loyola wanted a resident ensemble to strengthen its Fine and Performing Arts Department.
French, who succeeded Ferris as Mt. Carmel’s music director in 2001, studied composition with Ferris and also worked with him and the chorale. Since becoming the chorale’s music director in 2005, he has reduced the ensemble to 24 voices and worked to achieve a leaner, more flexible sound.
“It was difficult,” said French, “for the singers and for me, moving from about 40 singers to the 24 I was looking for. I think 24 is a perfect size. You can do double chorus music; you can do music in 12 parts. With 24 top-shelf, professional singers you have a wonderfully large sound. They can sing with great precision. They can sing the pianissimos that are as soft as a whisper and they can rattle the roof as well.”
The chorale has titled its 40th anniversary season “To Dream and Remember,” evoking the idea of honoring its past as well as looking forward. The three sets of programs will include Ferris’s Christmas cantata, Make We Joy and, in April, his Te Deum and arrangement of Widor’s toccata, Festival Alleluias. In March the chorale presents the Chicago premiere of a requiem by British composer Gabriel Jackson that mixes Latin texts with poetry from various traditions. French is composing a new piece for the March concerts as well.
The chorale has issued a dozen CDs over the years, its most recent, Come to Bethlehem, a compilation of Christmas music recorded live between 1986 and 2010.
After Ferris’s sudden death, said Vorrasi, the goal was simply “to not crash and burn.’’ There were a few seasons with guest conductors, but since French’s arrival, the chorale’s roster has stabilized. Close to 90 percent of the chorale’s audience has followed them from Mt. Carmel to Loyola, said Vorrasi, and they are building collaborations with students in the La Grange area and at Loyola.
“Like topsy it grew,’’ said Vorrasi, recalling the momentum that took the chorale to performances at the Aldeburgh Festival, the Spoleto Festival USA, and Washington’s National Cathedral and the Kennedy Center. “Most new arts organizations don’t last five years and we’ve managed forty.”
The William Ferris Chorale presents “Make We Joy,” 3 p.m. Sunday at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in La Grange and 7:30 p.m. Dec. 10, at Madonna della Strada Chapel, Loyola University. williamferrischorale.org; 773-508-2940.
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