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Ferris: Snowcarols, Gentle Mary, Etc / French, William Ferris Chorale


Release Date: 11/13/2007 
Label:  Cedille Records   Catalog #: 101   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  William Ferris
Conductor:  Paul French
Orchestra/Ensemble:  William Ferris Chorale
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Many listeners will not be familiar with the repertoire on this fine program of choral works for Christmas. It's difficult to find these pieces on recordings, and not all are readily available in published form. That said, we're fortunate to have William Ferris' own choir to present this music, a superb ensemble that knows his works and style better than any other group. Unfortunately, Ferris died in 2000 at age 63, but he obviously left his choir and compositional legacy in good hands, as conductor Paul French leads assured performances, characterized by warm yet full-bodied choral tone and articulate, unaffected expressive gestures.

Overall, ensemble balances are excellent, but they're best in a cappella pieces or those
Read more with organ accompaniment. In the choir/orchestra sections of the big work, Snowcarols (five movements, each an original setting of a carol), both textual and textural clarity are often obscured when the full choir is singing with instruments, a result that has nothing to do with the engineering and everything to do with what I would call "confrontational" rather than "complementary" orchestration. In other words, the (busy) orchestration seems to have very little to do with what the choir is singing (and vice versa), each group taking its own role and making its own way--and heavily couched in dissonance besides. This is a style that was very big in some conservatory composition circles during the 1960s and '70s, but it not only ensures a certain textual muddiness, it forces listeners to constantly work to try to keep these apparently disparate elements together.

The a cappella central movement of Snowcarols, a setting of In the bleak mid-winter that's nearly relentless in its primarily homophonic, dense, trudging dissonance, is an effective commentary on the cold, bleak scene (you can almost feel the frosty wind!) but it doesn't really bring us to the place where the text leads: "What can I give him, poor as I am?" Thus, the musical intent--the reason for setting this particular text--is puzzling: it's neither an expression of the lovely simplicity of the Christina Rossetti poem (so ideally realized in Harold Darke's popular version) nor an elevation to a substantially more sophisticated convergence of words and music (as in Britten's A boy was born). Again, this is a style that had (and likely still has) a following--after all, Snowcarols was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1980; but it's also music that projects a demeanor of difficulty whose appeal to listeners will be less than universal.

That said, the other half of the program--the first half--consists of shorter works that almost every choral fan will find immediately accessible, appealing, and worthy of many repeats. The "Mary" pieces--Gentle Mary; O Mary of Graces; Hail Mary--are absolute gems that should be in the repertoire of every good church choir. For me, the Hail Mary, with its flowing organ accompaniment, gorgeous modal melody, and ethereal harmonies (for women's voices) was the highlight of the disc--a perfect marriage of words and music, of mood and meaning, of musical purpose and liturgical function. Ferris' a cappella setting of the beloved Infant holy, infant lowly is a very skillfully written piece that applies entirely original music to the familiar text of the oft-sung Polish carol. Again, the music makes a fine impression on its own and would be an asset to any choir's repertoire (I'm adding it to my own choir's list!), but it doesn't illustrate the simply stated yet potent sentiment of the text nearly as effectively as, say, Paul Christiansen's classic setting.

Needless to say, if you're a choral music fan--and especially if you enjoy Christmas music--you really can't afford to miss this unique recording. It offers not only a host of new and pleasing discoveries but also serves as an introduction to a lesser-known but revered American composer/conductor--who, by the way, was a champion of new American music--whose friends/colleagues included Barber, Menotti, and Rorem. It's easy to applaud--and recommend--important new additions to the recording catalog, and this is definitely one of them.

--David Vernier, ClassicsToday.com
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Works on This Recording

1.
Gentle Mary by William Ferris
Conductor:  Paul French
Orchestra/Ensemble:  William Ferris Chorale
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1972; USA 
2.
The Lord Said to Me by William Ferris
Conductor:  Paul French
Orchestra/Ensemble:  William Ferris Chorale
3.
Lift Up Your Heads, O Mighty Gates by William Ferris
Conductor:  Paul French
Orchestra/Ensemble:  William Ferris Chorale
4.
Infant Holy, Infant Lowly by William Ferris
Conductor:  Paul French
Orchestra/Ensemble:  William Ferris Chorale
5.
O Mary of Graces by William Ferris
Conductor:  Paul French
Orchestra/Ensemble:  William Ferris Chorale
6.
Long is Our Winter by William Ferris
Conductor:  Paul French
Orchestra/Ensemble:  William Ferris Chorale
7.
Hail Mary by William Ferris
Conductor:  Paul French
Orchestra/Ensemble:  William Ferris Chorale
8.
Come, Lord, and Tarry Not by William Ferris
Conductor:  Paul French
Orchestra/Ensemble:  William Ferris Chorale
9.
Creator of the Stars of Night by William Ferris
Conductor:  Paul French
Orchestra/Ensemble:  William Ferris Chorale
10.
Snowcarols by William Ferris
Conductor:  Paul French
Orchestra/Ensemble:  William Ferris Chorale

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