Composer Frank Ferko's diverse musical interests, which include Messiaen, Lutheran church music, symbolist poetry, and Hildegard of Bingen, have produced a vibrantly imaginative body of work. Ferko began to study piano at an early age, soon taking an interest in church music. At the age of 14, he began playing the organ at church services, and two years later he was conducting a choir; this would be the beginning of 25 years in professionalRead more liturgical music. Around the same time, he made his first forays into composition, adopting the manner of Lutheran composer Richard Wienhorst. At 18, he began his undergraduate career at Valparaiso University, where he began formal composition study with Wienhorst himself.
Wienhorst also instructed Ferko in Renaissance counterpoint; early music concepts attracted the young composer's interest. Ferko was also encouraged to evolve his own modes and compose pieces using them, much as did Olivier Messiaen. While at Valparaiso, Ferko also studied organ with the renowned Philip Gehring; studies in improvisation also affected his developing compositional technique.
After graduating in 1972 with a degree in piano and organ performance, Ferko attended Syracuse University for a year, earning a master's degree in music theory. With Howard Boatright, he analyzed the music of Paul Hindemith and wrote his thesis on Messiaen's Vingt regards; with Will O. Headlee, he continued his organ study. Following several years of working as a director of church music, he took a job at Northwestern University. In 1982, he began working in the music library there; shortly thereafter, he began work toward his doctorate. Beginning in theory, he soon switched to composition, studying with Alan Stout.
Perhaps wary of the system of higher education, like many of those familiar with it, Ferko chose not to pursue a career as professor, preferring to continue his day job as music librarian. Acclaim and commissions would follow. His song cycle A Practical Program for Monks, settings of Thomas Merton texts for tenor and organ, won the 1989 - 1990 AGO Holtkamp Award. While working in the library, he came across the writings of the medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen. In 1990 - 1991, he composed a ten-movement Hildegard Cycle for organ, based on a series of her visions. The success of a choral setting of a Hildegard poem spurred the nine Hildegard Motets; both works were subsequently recorded. The Hildegard Triptych, for unaccompanied double chorus, followed in 1997.
His Stabat Mater, commissioned by and premiered in 1999 by Anne Heider and His Majesty's Clerkes (now Bella voce), won wide acclaim for its bold vocal writing and interspersing of texts between the original verses and was later recorded. A few of the awards Ferko and his compositions have won include yearly awards from ASCAP (since 1989) and grants from Meet the Composer, Arts International, and the Alice M. Ditson Fund. He has also served as composer in residence for the Dale Warland Singers.
Frank Ferko's musical philosophy results from a swirl of several fascinating influences. As a music librarian, he has easy access to a vast swathe of music literature, in which he is well-versed. A Messiaen scholar, Ferko is one of few modern composers actively pursuing compositional techniques pioneered by the French musician, including vivid modes and, rhythmically, the use of prime numbers and palindromes. Ferko's organ study also affects his strong sense of harmonic and melodic color; his skill in vocal writing continues to win praise, testament to his compositional lineage that extends through Wienhorst to Leo Sowerby. Ferko's distinct and vivid compositional voice has earned an impressive stream of performances, commissions, and awards. Read less