William Ferris (1937–2000) was a lifelong champion of contemporary composers. He and the William Ferris Chorale, which he founded with tenor John Vorrasi, have been acclaimed for their concerts of music by Dominick Argento, Samuel Barber, John Corigliano, David Diamond, Lee Hoiby, William Mathias, John McCabe, Edward McKenna, Gian Carlo Menotti, Steven Paulus, Vincent Persichetti, Ned Rorem, William Schuman, Leo Sowerby, William Walton, and many others, often with the composers as honored guests. Under his direction, the Chorale performed at the Aldeburgh Festival and the Spoleto Festival: USA and has given more than 160 world, American, and Chicago premieres of important new literature.
A renowned composer in his own right, Mr. Ferris’s music was commissioned and premiered by the Chicago and the Boston Symphony Orchestras. Among his compositions are two operas, numerous concerti, symphonic and chamber works, hundreds of choral works, and dozens of songs. Northwestern University houses his complete musical archive.
A man of devout faith, Mr. Ferris worked for the Church from his early youth, holding positions as organist/music director and composer-in-residence at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Rochester, New York, and, most notably, at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Chicago. It was his profound belief that music for the liturgy should be of the highest quality, and his work is a shining example of that principle.
Mr. Ferris’s sudden death, while conducting a rehearsal of the Verdi Requiem, shocked the music community. His was a unique and distinctive voice on the American music scene.
From the William Ferris Chorale website (with additions)
Rockford, IL. The Rockford Symphony Orchestra is pleased to announce Music Director Steven Larsen was named 2016 Conductor of the Year in the professional orchestra category by the Illinois Council of Orchestras during its annual awards for excellence in the field of music performance.
An awards panel of judges drawn from the Illinois Council of Orchestras Board of Directors and independent professional musicians from throughout Illinois reviewed the nominees.
The RSO is also pleased to announce that Larsen has also renewed his contract to serve as RSO Music Director through the 2019/20 season.
In his 25th season as Music Director of the Rockford Symphony Orchestra, Larsen has also been a recipient of the ICO Conductor of Year Award in 1999 and 2006. His tenure has brought both local and national recognition to the orchestra. Larsen has worked with dozens of orchestras in the United States and Europe, including the Opera Theater of San Antonio, the Chicago Opera Theater, Lyric Opera Cleveland, the Minnesota Opera, Michigan Opera Theater, Light Opera of Chicago and the Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra.
“The RSO is fortunate to have a conductor of Steve Larsen’s caliber leading the orchestra”, Executive Director Julie Thomas said after the announcement. “We look forward to continued excellence in programming and performance quality.”
At this point, we stopped for a few moments to take care of some technical details, and then continued . . .
Sir Georg Solti, CSO music director, praised Edwards as 'a person with infinite wisdom to whom I often turned. And his advice, not always what I wanted to hear, was in the long term always right.'
Edwards was born in St. Louis. He studied English at the universities of North Carolina and Harvard, and worked for a brief time as a reporter and music critic for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat.
He left the paper to join the publicity department of the St. Louis Symphony and in 1936 became assistant manager of the National Symphony.
Edwards returned to St. Louis three years later as manager of the
Orchestra, and held similar posts in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Pittsburgh
He was the first recipient of the Louis Sudler Award "for distinguiched
service to the profession of symphony orchestra management" and also
received honorary doctoral degrees from DePaul University and the Cleveland
Institute of Music. For many years Edwards was an influential leader
in the affairs of the American Symphony Orchestra League, serving as their
fifth president and later as Chairman of the Board for 15 consecutive seasons.
In 1975, he was recipient of the League's Gold Baton award, the
highest national award for distinguished service to music and the arts.
[The photo is from a commercial website, hence
Ten and a half years later, in May of 1997, we met again, ostensibly to promote upcoming performances of his opera The Diva at Northwestern University. We did, indeed chat about that, and while there is a bit of duplication of ideas from the previous conversation, there is much new material, as well as his thoughts on other subjects. Rather than edit out the repetitions, here is that second interview . . . . . . .
Chicago Composer, Renaissance Man of Music
John von Rhein, Tribune Music Critic Chicago Tribune,
May 18, 2000
Ferris, one of the nation's leading choral composers and a devout Catholic, was leading his William Ferris Chorale in a rehearsal of Giuseppe Verdi's towering Requiem, arguably the most Catholic of all choral masterpieces, Tuesday evening at St. Thomas the Apostle Church, in Hyde Park, when he collapsed on the podium, the victim of a massive heart attack.
It was a grand exit and an ironic coda to a distinguished career that saw him become the first American composer to teach at the Vatican and to become the recipient of a papal knighthood from Pope John Paul II in 1989.
The Ferris Chorale, which he founded and conducted for 28 years, was scheduled to perform the work Friday night at the church, 5472 S. Kimbark Ave. That performance has now been canceled.
The chorus had begun singing the final section, "Libera me" (whose Latin text includes the lines "Deliver me, O Lord, from everlasting death" and "Eternal rest grant them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them"), when the director faltered, fell backward and was helped to the floor.
Ferris received CPR on the scene from one of his choristers who is also a physician, as the 100-member chorus stood in stunned silence. Several were in tears, and many were observed praying. He was rushed to the University of Chicago Hospitals but never recovered.
At the end, Ferris, 63, was doing what he loved best--making music, surrounded by the singers of the Chicago choral organization he directed to worldwide acclaim.
The astonishing range and depth of Ferris' talents made him a true Renaissance man in the city's cultural life. Significantly, he represented the end of a long line of notable Chicago composer-performers that included his teacher, composer Leo Sowerby. Choruses and musicians throughout the country performed his music, while recordings and international radio broadcasts of the chorale's performances carried his name even farther afield.
"I like to think of myself as a caring performer, just as Sowerby was," Ferris told the Tribune in 1987, when his chorale celebrated its 15th anniversary. "He once told me, `You will be a fine conductor if you are a really good composer."'
Ferris took that implicit advice to heart and, in fact, preferred to be known as a composer who conducts, rather than as a conductor who composes. He was practically unique among composers in that he also directed a professional chorus.
Like that of his mentor Sowerby, his output was prolific. Ferris' body of compositions, written in a solidly tonal, conservative idiom that reflects Sowerby's influence, includes two operas, a dozen orchestral works, 15 chamber pieces and well over 60 choral compositions.
Ferris was hardly less distinguished as an educator (he taught composition and choral music from 1973 at the American Conservatory of Music), director of choral clinics, organist and church musician. He served as director of music at Mt. Carmel Church in Chicago from 1983 to his death.
"I feel I have lost a very dear friend," said Don Roberts, head music librarian at Northwestern University, which houses the Ferris Archive of manuscripts. "He was a wonderful, kind gentleman to work with, very interested and caring, an incredible human being."
"I was always struck with his musical integrity and also with his great love of music," said James Palermo, artistic and general director of the Grant Park Music Festival, and a former choir member under Ferris at Mt. Carmel. "He had the kind of enthusiasm that you find in people who are truly enraptured by what they do--that never waned."
Ferris' avuncular manner belied his single-mindedness as a choral technician who insisted on building his interpretations on a firm foundation of intensive preparation, thorough technical discipline and musical understanding.
The Ferris Chorale achieved widespread recognition primarily because Ferris consistently championed the music of living composers, and this made his chorus practically unique among professional choral groups across the nation.
Among the composers whom the chorus has honored over the years are Ned Rorem, Dominick Argento, David Diamond, John Corigliano, Lee Hoiby, Stephen Paulus, William Mathias, Gian Carlo Menotti, Edward McKenna, Vincent Persichetti and William Schuman. Many of these composers were invited guests for the chorale's subscription concerts of their music here. Ferris' innovative programming resulted in more than 150 world, European, U.S. and local premieres.
Largely because of the chorale's friendship with tenor Peter Pears, longtime companion of composer Benjamin Britten, the chorus was invited to make its European debut in 1986 at Britten's Aldeburgh Festival in England. It also has performed at the Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston, S.C.; the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.; and the Art Institute of Chicago, for the opening of the Vatican Collections.
Because Ferris approached his select repertory with a composer's sensibility and because he was a skilled choral conductor, his performances were lavishly praised by the composers. After the chorale devoted an entire program to Schuman's music in 1986, the elder statesman of American music sent his gratitude, adding that "if they ever did such a concert in New York, only my friends and family would attend." In Chicago, the concert was packed.
The Ferris Chorale's most recent Chicago performance, March 3, was typically adventuresome, a birthday tribute to British composer and pianist John McCabe. Ferris' death leaves the chorus' future uncertain. But his music, and the group's large discography, represents an impressive legacy, ensuring that his name will live on.
No one realized it at the time, but the origins of the Ferris Chorale can be traced to 1946, when 9-year-old Billy Ferris, of the South Side, took first prize in the Morris B. Sachs Amateur Hour here, with his rendition of "Too-ra-loo-ra-loo-ral." Winning that talent contest convinced him he had something to contribute to Chicago music, even if it wasn't necessarily as a singer.
Educated in city schools, Ferris discovered early on the twin passions--a love of singing and a love of composing--that were to shape his adult career. All the while he was singing in a boys choir, he was writing his own settings of sacred texts, stuffing the finished motets into desk drawers. When he finally mustered the courage to show his compositions to his teachers, they encouraged him to write more.
From there Ferris followed the path typical of a well-rounded church musician. He studied piano and organ and enrolled at De Paul University (where his teachers included Alexander Tcherepnin and Arthur C. Becker) and the American Conservatory. During that time, he also took private lessons with Sowerby. He later became organist of Chicago's Holy Name Cathedral and was for a time director of music at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Rochester, N.Y.
Ferris said he was inspired to start his own chorus after hearing the celebrated Robert Shaw Chorale during his student days. It was the distinctive Shaw choral sound that fascinated him--a full, hearty, beautifully blended sound that remained with him until 1971 when he got the opportunity to start the chorale that bears his name.
He is survived by a sister, Joan Ferris, and by his longtime associate and companion, John Vorrasi, manager of the Ferris Chorale and a frequent tenor soloist with the group.
These conversations were recorded in Chicago on September 11, 1986, and May 24, 1997. Portions were broadcast on WNIB later in 1986, and again the following year, and in 1997 and 2000. This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website at that time. My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago. You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.