Composer / Conductor  William  Ferris

Two Conversations with Bruce Duffie



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)  
==  Links in this box (and below) refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

Being chauvinistic about Chicago and its many world-class musicians, it pleased me to interview and present some of them on WNIB, Classical 97.  This page contains transcripts of the two chats that I had with composer and conductor William Ferris.  We got together first in 1986, and then again, a decade later, in 1997.

Needless to say, it was my pleasure to attend many of the concerts of the William Ferris Chorale over the years.  When his fiftieth birthday was coming up, I made sure to do special radio programs to celebrate the occasion.  So, a few months before the date, we met and had the first of our two conversations . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   I want to talk to you about both the Chorale and the art of composing.  When you’re selecting voices for the Chorale, what exactly do you look for?

William Ferris:   I look for voices that can sing effectively in an ensemble.  It’s not always the solo voice that you pick, but it’s the voice that can blend.  Very often, in fact, you might pass over a superb soloist and pick one that can blend.  It’s certainly excellent if a singer can do both, and many first-rate ones can, but the Chorale has to become a repertory instrument, so I’m very concerned about ensemble singing.

BD:   Is there any reason that people who want to sing solo parts should hesitate to join a chorale such as yours?

Ferris:   No, so because we do a literature that often calls for important solo singing.  This means everyone has an opportunity within group to audition for those solos, and may have a chance to really demonstrate their personal gifts at a concert.

BD:   Do you select most of your soloists from within the Chorale?

Ferris:   I almost always do.  It’s a very good thing because, first of all, it means that everybody more or less learns all of those parts.  It’s the old Robert Shaw idea.  In fact, he used to have almost everyone in a section learn solo parts in the old days of his Chorale.  The story goes that he used to not let soloists know until the evening of the concert, if they were on tour, which ones he had chosen.  So it was A, B or C.  Everyone learns those solo parts, but that’s also good for morale. There’s a nice sense of competitiveness in the fact that from within this organization these solo people will come, rather than bringing them in from outside.

ferris BD:   How many people are in the Chorale?

Ferris:   Fifty-five.

BD:   Does it vary at all?

Ferris:   It can vary by four or five singers, but if you go any further upwards, you’re beginning to get into something a little less flexible in the kind of organization I’d like to deal with.  Keeping it at fifty-five means it’s big enough to do double chorus things, the Vaughan Williams Mass and things like that.  But also, it still can have an intimate quality.  People can play off each other.  They know that individual voices are important, so I keep it around fifty-five.

BD:   Does that help to dictate your selection of repertoire?

Ferris:   My selection of repertoire dictates really the whole thing, so it’s the other way around.

BD:   How do you decide what you’ll sing and what you will not?

Ferris:   Since I am not doing the major romantic choral-orchestral works, such as the Verdi Requiem, I’m rather doing the works in between large baroque works and the large romantic works.  First, there is the Twentieth century repertoire, including Britten and Walton, the kind of works that can be done with a smaller chorus with organ, or with small instrumental ensembles.  Then there are Renaissance works that fit very beautifully with a smaller ensemble, working twenty up to the fifty-five voices.  Because of the music I choose, I limit the size of the group.  If we were to need a Verdi Requiem chorus, naturally I’d want more than fifty-five.  So, because of the music that we do, we keep the ensemble to a certain size.

BD:   Are there times then when you only use part of the ensemble?

Ferris:   Oh, sure.  Or we can divide it up into two or three smaller ensembles.  This season we’re going to be doing a lovely Mediaeval carol ‘Noël’, a fourteenth century English anonymous work, and naturally you don’t want fifty-five voices.  We’ll be having small ensembles of maybe six to eight to twelve who will be answering each other from within the ensemble.  Sometimes, we do standard repertoire Renaissance works with smaller groups.  If we’re doing Josquin, or Palestrina, sometimes we take maybe twenty-two voices, or sometimes even fewer.

BD:   Will you mix all these up in the concert?

Ferris:   Right.

BD:   Does that also help to save the voices a little bit during a long concert?

Ferris:   I think so, sure.  If you’re closing with a fairly good-sized work that involves everyone and maybe some instrumental forces, it’s a wonderful way to have people relax a bit.  If it’s mainly a choral concert, which ours are, we do sing a lot.  Often there may be an instrumental work presented, not so much for the sake of saving the singers as for making an interesting program.  If we’re doing a program of a single composer, we want to represent that composer in several different ways.  So, the audience can get to hear some instrumental works as well as choral works.  But the bulk of the evening will be choral singing, and if it’s pretty intense stuff, and if it’s difficult Twentieth century literature, it’s nice to have a chance to rest.  Only the conductor doesn’t get a chance to rest!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Is it ever too much of a problem to conduct a long evening?

Ferris:   No... it’s a very enjoyable problem.  But sometimes it’s a full evening.

BD:   Is it safe to assume that all of your preparation work is done in the rehearsal?

Ferris:   Do you mean in the sense of getting ourselves together for the concert? 

BD:   I am asking if there is a special spark, the inspiration of the moment?

Ferris:   There’s a lot left that can yet happen at the concert.  When you are doing Twentieth century literature, though, you have to be very sure of the notes and the techniques involved, to get what the composer is asking for.  But that doesn’t mean it’s a straight-jacket performance, any more than it would be if you were doing a work of Brahms with a sense of rubato.  The sense of the moment still comes into this music, but the better you know it, the freer you are to let those moments happen.  If you’re walking on eggshells with a Twentieth century work, your audience knows it, and I know that the performers know it.  In fact, you have to be somewhat better prepared because there aren’t obvious immediate solutions.  Cadences are very different, vocabularies change from one composer to another so much in the Twentieth century that you really have to be sure your materials are in order to have a free expressive performance.

BD:   How do you decide which Twentieth century works will accept to perform?

Ferris:   They have to make a good choral sound.  I think with a chorale, you must make sure that your singers are convinced that they
re sounding good, as well as doing something very enticing and challenging and interesting.  Even though the styles may seem very extreme on first hearing to the listeners in the audience, if it makes an effective choral sound, a convincing choral sound, they’re going to go home thinking that they at least heard something real, and that it wasn’t just a novel experiment.  I choose works that make us sound good.  I choose works that are expressive, works that have texts that may touch people at this period in the Twentieth century.  There’s a wonderful body of what I would call classic Twentieth century choral compositions out there that really should be heard.  These are choral works of Vincent Persichetti, Ned Rorem, William Schuman, and of the English School, such composers as William Mathias, or William Walton.  These are really pillar works that should be heard, and someday will have the same following that the great Nineteenth century works have now.  But they have to be presented.

BD:   Are these works that should be heard often?

Ferris:   I would hope so.  I would hope that people would want to hear them more than once.

BD:   Then you come to the problem of only having so many concerts, and just so much time on each concert.

Ferris:   That’s very true.  With a season like ours, where we have four major concerts in a subscription season, it would be rare for us to repeat a work from concert to concert.  If some are one-composer concerts, or concerts featuring one period, it would be very hard to repeat something.  But from season to season, and in the course of many seasons, there are certainly works and composers that we have gone back to, sometimes by demand.  This is our fifteenth anniversary season, and sometimes people are very eager to hear these works again.  Some years back, we did a seventy-fifth birthday concert for William Walton, and by the time his eightieth birthday rolled around, everybody
singers, audience, everyone I spoke towas very eager to have another Walton concert.  Since his choral output is not very large, some of the works were repeated from one concert to another.  There were some additions, but people were very eager to hear some of those works again.

BD:   Do one-composer concerts really stand up for a whole evening?

Ferris:   I’ve been doing them now in general for almost a dozen years, and I think they do if the composer has a persuasive style.  We certainly know that one-composer concerts stand up from every period preceding the Twentieth century.  What is an opera evening but a one-composer concert?  Certainly we have evenings of Mozart, or Beethoven, etc.  We sometimes do an injustice to Twentieth century composers if we think that all we can stand is about twenty minutes of them, and then we get back to the
real thing.  Certainly there are composers who present levels of difficulty, maybe in the listening, that would be problematic if you spent an entire evening of one and half, or two hours.  On the other hand, if there’s a large output from this composer, you can at least find contrasting works within the same style that would hold people’s attention.  Then I’m careful to plan different sounds within a program.  If you begin with an a cappella work, then you should look to works with a small instrumental ensemble, or maybe something with organ.  We might do something with soloists, then maybe a purely instrumental work, and maybe a few songs.  In the case of Walton, even though I said the output was small, the variety is immense.  You could find works for guitar, as well as works for a cappella chorus, works for organ and chorus, even works where a tenor joins a small ensemble.  So within the framework of his personal style in a small output, there’s really a wide variety.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What do you expect of the audience that comes to hear concerts of the William Ferris Chorale?

Ferris:   They’re there for an exciting evening of music-making.  I’ve always found that they’re very responsive audiences.  We never feel that they’re sitting on their hands.  They seem to enjoy themselves, and they seem to come back, even if some of the composers that we’re doing are not well-known.  If they come to the first concert, they seem to come through the season to hear what’s happening.  I’ve always found a rapport with the audience and, interestingly enough, I see a lot of the same people coming back.  We do see new faces, but over the years you see an audience for this kind of thing.  As we all say, there are the opera-goers, and there is the chamber music crowd, and the people who go to the Chicago Symphony concerts.  It’s a chunk from each of those groups that seems to make up our audience.  There are those who are very interested in purely vocal music, and some that are interested in liturgical music, and some who are interested in Twentieth century music.  Some come for the sound of the organ, and some love the combination of orchestra and chorus.  So we can pull them from all those other areas, and set them down at a Twentieth century choral concert, and they seem to enjoy themselves.

ferris BD:   Do you feel that because you’ve built up a solid reputation that you can take a few more risks?

Ferris:   I do, but I don’t know whether my board does all the time!  [Both laugh]  The whole thing has been a risk, when you get right down to it.  But over these past fifteen years, maybe a dozen concerts have presented works in the presence of the composer.  We will bring a composer here for a mini-festival.  We’ll let people get to know these composers, and maybe a round-table forum would happen a day or two before the concert.  Then, for our benefit
which is an immense benefit for the performerswe’re able to share our rehearsals with the creators of the music.  Talk about the horse’s mouth, we really feel, after some of these rehearsals, that we know pretty well what the composer intended.

BD:   Does the composer give you a lot of help, or just a little help here and there?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Alan Hovhaness, Easley Blackwood, and Geroge Rochberg.]

Ferris:   It varies with the composers.  In a certain sense, they always give a lot of help in that they are there reacting, and they’re generally very honest about their reactions.  Some composers expect you to intuit to all of it.  They make a suggestion that may amount to one or two sentences, and from that you go back, and hopefully bring new light on what you’re doing.  In the case of Vincent Persichetti, he just said,
“That’s the way the pieces are supposed to sound.  I’m very pleased, and you keep doing it.  Gian Carlo Menotti is a fascinating composer to work with, because he really wants you to do it all.  He just makes a little poetic suggestion, the point being maybe of adding things, or filling things out for him.  I remember when we did his Church Parable The Egg some years back, there was a trumpet fanfare that announced a big procession, and he felt that it wasn’t working.  I suggested placing a trumpet further up in the building, in a high gallery, and perhaps extending the fanfare to twice its length, and have it done echo-fashion between a downstairs trumpet and an upstairs trumpet.  After I said it, I thought it was pretty brash, and I thought he’d probably say to just go back and rehearse it again.  But he thought it was a terrific idea, and actually it worked.  So, he fixed it into the score that way.  He’s always at work on his pieces, and since he does so much stage direction, he’s actualizing the musical element as he’s working, putting the piece together.

BD:   On something like that, he fixed it for your performance in your venue.  Would he want it different in another place at a different time?

Ferris:   That very well could be.  Maybe in another space that wouldn’t work at all.  If it were being done in, say, in an opera house instead of a large church, that might not work.  Coming out over the audience, that trumpet may sound dead if it were coming from a balcony.  The particular space makes a great deal of difference.

BD:   Does that give you, as a choral director, more firm ground to tamper with scores?

Ferris:   [Laughs]  I don’t know if I ever really tamper with scores.  I don’t think there’s any firm ground to tamper with them.  What you do as a choral director is bring the score to life.  Many composers today, unfortunately, are not choral directors themselves.  Many composers today don’t even sing, and, as we know, a number of Twentieth century composers hardly know the human voice.  So what I do is simply ask the composer if I can show him a way that it might work more simply for the singers.  But I would never change their music.  I would never mis-represent what’s in the score.  Obviously, I might give or take a metronome marking, or a dynamic here and there.  That’s all part of making music, but I’ve never knowingly altered a score.  This case with Menotti was something that was bothering him, and it wasn’t working, and together we came to that solution.

BD:   Did it bother you as well?

Ferris:   It bothered me, yes, because the effect of the procession just wasn’t as grand as it should have been.

BD:   It bothered him because he knows the overall effect from what he’s trying to do.  I just wondered if it bothered you, as a director, to know in advance that it wasn’t going to work the way he wanted?

Ferris:   The sense of moment wasn’t there.  That, I could feel.  We had been rehearsing with piano in a different space, and when we finally came into the Cathedral of St. James (where we were going to perform it), with the instrumental forces, what should have been an extraordinary moment wasn’t happening.  So, it was apparent for musical reasons, and yes, I felt that.  Perhaps I didn’t feel it earlier in the rehearsal hall, which had a drier acoustic with piano, but it was always an awkward transition I felt.

BD:   You say that some composers don’t really understand the human voice.  What advice do you have for a young composer who says,
Mr. Ferris, I would like to write a piece for you”?

Ferris:   A lot of young composers have shown me their choral compositions, and for the most part I would say they’re fairly sound and effective.  But for those that aren’t, I would say, “For heaven’s sake, sing occasionally!  Get away from the piano!  Get away from the synthesizer!  Even if you just go to a community chorus a couple of nights a week, go to the sing-along Messiah!  See what it’s actually like to make vocal music, and be with people who make vocal music.  Join a church choir, or even just sing in the congregation.  Use that instrument, because if you begin to use it yourself, you also realize for all its tremendous potential, there are certain limitations with regard to quick changes of register, and placement of text in the very high register, and how quickly you can re-articulate certain notes.  It’s very easy for young composers to get hooked mentally on a piano.  I can remember even telling some of my composition students, not only with regard to chorus, but even regarding the orchestra, that the orchestra does not have a sostenuto pedal.  You can’t just plunk down your favorite chord and play something above it.  When they heard their works, they would say they’re thin, there’s something wrong, it’s not sustained the way they imagined.  It was because they were seated at the piano, playing it like piano music.  All too often, choral composers fall into the same trap.  I was very impressed when William Schuman was here last year.  He told me that he always sits at his desk and sings all the lines of his work, even the major orchestral works.  When he’s composing a symphony, he’s actually singing the English horn line for bars and bars and bars.  He didn’t mean figuring it in a couple of measures in one progression, but he was actually singing it from its initiating to its determination.  Then, he’s singing and thinking the clarinet parts the same way.  I was very impressed with that.  All too often we tend to think of music from the top of the page to the bottom as an impact moment.  But if you think from the left to the right, if you sing those lines, and if you actually sing, this is going to help you tremendously with writing for chorus.

BD:   Would singing help you in writing a violin line?

Ferris:   I think so.

BD:   Even though a wind line is almost a singing line because you use the breath?  The strings can sustain for as long you have the bow.

Ferris:   The question of breathing is one that has to be attended to, but it is akin to phrasing, or to bowing.  You’re bowing a string part, and you could use, say, a consonant in a vowel line to imply where you may change the direction of your bow.   There’s a certain similarity, and a lot of us are very moved by violinists who have a singing tone and an expressive quality.  Bless them that they never have to breathe, but they do have to change the direction of the bow.


BD:   You also teach composition.  Is composition something that really can be taught?

Ferris:   That’s a wonderful age-old question, isn’t it?  I don’t know.  I would say you can work with composers, and hopefully they might be able to compose more freely and more personally after you work with them.  You might be able to certainly help them with techniques, such as the study of counterpoint, clarity of line, and orchestration.  Those matters can all be shared, if not taught, and there’s some gain.  You are a composer, or you aren’t a composer, and what you usually do is go to another composer in order to have a different reaction.  Copland said it very well.  I remember hearing him years ago.  Someone asked him a similar question, and he said, “All you can really do is react.  It’s another set of ears with a different background reacting to this music, rather than just the composer’s ears with his or her background.”  So what you do is react honestly, and you react from your own experience, which may be technically more adroit than this young composer.  It may be very different if you are a choral composer, or a piano composer.  This may be an instrumental composer, but these things come to bear on that young composer’s ability to find a simple and direct way.  So, in that sense, you help, but I don’t think you can teach composition any more than you can’t teach someone to be a novelist.  You can certainly suggest novels they should read, and help them with formal ideas.

BD:   Where is the balance between inspiration and technique?

Ferris:   If you can’t express yourself in a formal manner that is also perceivable by other people
be that performers or listenersthen what you may have is just a collection of wonderful unique and original ideas that remain with you.  The material certainly should be moving to you, meaningful to you, inspiredif you want to use the wordbut if you can’t do anything with those materials, if all you can do is simply to lay them out in front of someone, and not be able to develop them, or not be able to even present them in the proper format, then you’re in trouble.  We argue often about technique and inspiration, but maybe it is material in form, and really good material generates its own form.  Think of, say, sonatina material.  If you get down to your writing desk, or the piano, or wherever you work, and you really don’t know how to make that sonatina material into a Sonatina, then you’re in trouble.  Then there is a problem between material and form, or inspiration and technique, and all composers spend their entire life trying to hone in on the technical side so as to ‘feature’ their materials more persuasively.

BD:   Let me ask one other balance question.  Is music art, or is music entertainment?

Ferris:   I think it’s both.  I’m not going to be elitist and say that you draw the line at musical comedy, or cabaret songs.  Cabaret songs are entertaining, and sometimes wonderful music, but what in the world is more entertaining than some of the music of Mozart, which is certainly high art and very artful?  [Both laugh]  I love to be entertained by art!  [Pauses a moment]  I like the questions you ask.  They’re really to the point because a lot of people do send me scores of choral things to do, and very often it is a question of their not being so technically sound for chorus.  When reading through them, sometimes you almost know at once if they’re going to make a choral sound.  I’m sure you’ve heard instrumentalists complain about people who write against their instrument, and it’s a similar thing with a chorus.

BD:   I hear this more from opera singers, that contemporary composers don’t understand the voice.  They’re writing for them like they’re a clarinet.

Ferris:   Absolutely, jumping down tenths and expecting them to pronounce an important accented vowel up high.  It doesn’t work that way.  You can’t go on like that.

*     *     *     *     *

ferris BD:   Let’s talk about some of your compositions.  Earlier we were talking balancing a one-composer program.  When you’re writing a piece, do you look for balance within your own output?

Ferris:   A composition has to have an intrinsic form, and its material generates that form.  But what you need is a beginning, a middle, and an end to anything.  In this day and age, a lot of novel experimentation goes on.  I look for balances, but I also look for contrasts.  I look for tension and relaxation.

BD:   Is this within one work or from work to work?

Ferris:   Within one work if it’s a fairly good-sized work, but it really depends on what we’re talking about.  Certainly, if you were thinking within several works on one program, naturally those contrasts would have to be more marked.  But I was thinking more that you meant within a work itself.  For a work to hold up, it has to have a certain amount of contrast.  It has to have variety, but it also has to have a serious sense of fulfillment, of going somewhere.  It’s dangerous to just pop out colorful, wonderful ideas one after the other.  If we can do that, fine, but I don’t know if that’s as satisfying as taking one, or two, or three ideas and really doing something with them.  You want people to hear them again, and have the people want to hear them again.  That sense of recapitulation or needing that material again is important.  There’s something wonderful to be said about the traditional forms that have evolved over the years, whether it be the sonata form, or certain song forms.  The idea of stating a musical subject, or theme, and going somewhere with it, then stating a contrasting theme and having them converse, or do battle as Beethoven once said, and finding one emerge and address you again.  There’s something very rewarding and time-honored in this.  I feel that every time I look at Gregorian chants of the church
the whole idea of the antiphon, the text, the Psalm being sung and returning to the opening text.  This is basically our ABA form way back in the Ninth century, and even in its most primitive expression, those forms are fairly essential to a listening public.  You have to hang your hat on something, and if a composer dazzles you with a light-show of sound, it can be very ingratiating and fascinating the first time around, but what do you come back for?  Is there something there that you want to listen to again?  There has to be cohesiveness and integrity, and hopefully the material is worth listening to.  There needs to be variety within the structure, but not just for its own sake.  The piece should feel like it moves along, and something happens.  When I was a very, very young boy, I remember my naïve reaction to large serious works.  When I was nine years old, what fascinated me about hearing a recording of the Brahms Second Piano Concerto was that it kept going.  I had heard, and even played, little piano pieces, or even Bach Inventions.  They were very fulfilling, but they were fairly short.  They were contained, and it seemed to me in those early days that maybe that’s what music wasa series of contained, smaller statements, and varying degrees of completion, or perfection if you will.  But then to hear a large work, and hear a single movement keep going, keep persuading, I found it almost to be miraculous, and something to really seek after.

BD:   Is this one of the reasons that pop songs are all three or four minutes long, and that’s it?

Ferris:   Maybe.  Maybe they’re just a wonderful moment, but on the other hand, so are certain works of Chopin.  They’re absolutely gems, and are complete in themselves.  Maybe within that small structure you can do the same kind of going on, and yet in those larger works, it’s so much more satisfying to me, because it seems like someone believes in you enough to take you on a longer journey.  Smaller works are like introductions.  They’re like meeting the composer, or meeting people, or meeting their ideas.  But then if those composers can persuasively take you with them for a while, it’s quite moving and very rewarding.

BD:   Do you find that when you are reading poetry, or texts, all of a sudden you realize it would make a wonderful piece of music?

Ferris:   Yes.  Actually, I am rather selfish about the way I read poetry.  I read it all too often just to find poems to set.  When I was younger, perhaps I was a little more altruistic about my reading.  I usually know very quickly if it’s a text that I can set, or that I want to set.  There’s either a shape to it, or a certain color to the language, or a certain element.  Maybe there is a mystical atmosphere that moves me, and I know at once I’m in the presence of something that I’d like to work with.

BD:   Do you ever set texts that have been set previously, or even many times?

Ferris:   Yes, I do because I’ve set a number of religious works .  The Psalms, and the movements of the Mass have been set from the Gregorian chants straight through to our present day by so many people.

BD:   Being a churchman, it’s almost like everything cries out to be reset.  
Sing Unto the Lord a New Song!

Ferris:   In a way, yes, it’s true.  It has to touch you in your own time.  But if you’re talking about other poetry, from time to time I’ve set a number of poems, for instance, of Edna St. Vincent Millay, who really fascinated me in my teens and early twenties.  I made songs and song-cycles out of her poetry, and then I found along the way that other people had chosen the same poems to set.  Sometimes it’s fascinating to me because each composer reacts differently.  The poem is your catalyst, and you go from there.  It opens the door inside of you.  I can’t say that I have often set poems that other people have set, but from time to time it’s a very charming kind of reality to see what someone else has done.  They’re always very different.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let’s talk about your opera.

Ferris:   Actually, I’ve done two operas.  I think the opera that you would like to talk about is the one which I call The Diva.  Anything that has the title The Diva
from perfumes to moviesseems to be ‘in’, so perhaps my opera will be a grand success!  I think the title came about before the movie or the perfume title came about.  I’m happy about it.  It’s a one-act opera, and I would call it a comedy.  It’s maybe a mythical comedy, or allegorical comedy in some ways.  It’s about a teacher we call ‘The Diva’ that has no real name.  She’s just the one who stands apart.  She lives very much in our time.  The scenario is set Twentieth century small town America.  It simply is the story a very great artist who is coming home to retire.  She has finished a long career in opera, a long career of solo singing, and she’s coming back to the place where it all began.  The interesting irony of the plot is that no one seems to think that she can sing anymore, and she’s going to give a farewell recital and retire.  All the people in her town are waiting for this event, and are really more excited about the debut of a younger singer, who will also be presented on the same program.  Thereupon lies the conflict.  It’s full of wonderful charactersmusic critics, piano teachers, students, and people in the town.  It’s a vital group of music lovers.

BD:   It’s not an insider’s joke, is it?

Ferris:   Oh, no!  In fact, as the story unfolds, we find that one person in the town has always believed in the diva, and still does, and feels that this is going to be a night of great achievement.  In a sense, it becomes just that.  The debut of the young singer is really quite unfortunate.  All those who believed it would be something special, continued to believe so.  The diva appears for her moment of glory at the very end of the work to sing her large monologue.  She begins rather falteringly, not because of any problems with singing, but because she’s so touched to have reached this point in her life, and this place again.  As she recovers and sings on, she really becomes incandescent, almost other worldly, and everyone is simply spellbound by the reality.  At the end, after an enormous aria, nothing can be said except the word ‘diva’, which is uttered by the one person who always believed in her.  So, it has a kind of a mythical feel about it.

BD:   Does that put too many demands though on the person singing the diva?

Ferris:   It’s a very difficult part because she has to be a remarkable actress, and she also has to be able to be both immensely convincing, and in the first part a little bit unsettled.  Actually, it’s harder for the poor girl making her debut, because she, who is supposed to sing brilliantly, doesn’t sing brilliantly.  I’ve written in all the notes so deviously that sometimes it’s harder to sing than the right ones.  I think it’s a good evening.

BD:   You’re looking for an effect of singing wrong notes?

Ferris:   Oh, absolutely.

BD:   Does it matter if she sings the correct wrong notes, or perhaps a few wrong-wrong notes?

Ferris:   Probably not.  As long as they are wrong notes, they don’t have to be mine, although if I’m intending to mix two keys in a certain way, it’s very important.  But in general, it’s just improper cadences and phrasing that’s bad, and one time shooting up to a note right out of the key.  It’s a charming fun moment for the audience.  I don’t know if the character knows how bad she is at that point, which is a rather touching thing, too, and her backers have convinced her how wonderful she was.  So even if we think maybe she did know, we don’t know for sure because they are not gracious enough to stay for the real moment of truth.  There’s a lot of life in the piece.

BD:   How long is it?

Ferris:   The work takes sixty minutes; it’s just an hour and two scenes.  There’s a lot of nice choral writing in it.  A lot of the town’s people get to sing things when the diva arrives.  In fact, the second scene begins with a little chorus from the music school where the diva studied, singing a little madrigal.  It’s set on a summer evening, a gazebo thing with a middle-America feel about the set.  The scenario is my own, and the work is dedicated to Eleanor Steber, a good friend, and a true diva who has retired from singing more or less, although she’s still teaching and giving marvelous masterclasses in which she does still sing.  The libretto is done by John Vorrasi.

BD:   Has it been performed?

Ferris:   I’m happy to say it is going to be performed by the Chicago Opera Theater in early June.  They’re doing a wonderful thing this year.  They’re going to do workshop performances of new operas, which is very good for us, we opera composers around the area, because it gives us a chance to test things out.  Instead of doing it in a fully staged production, it will be in a workshop production, and it gives you the opportunity to change things, if necessary.  I’m just delighted, and I laud Alan Stone and Steve Larsen for doing this.  [Review of this performance is shown farther down on this webpage.]

Published 4/05/2016

larsen 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.”

It’s just what opera composers need because it’s very difficult to presume everything theatrical when you’re simply writing at your desk.  To have it done in front of an audience, with actual singers and somewhat staged, I feel very happy about this opportunity.  If it’s successful in that format, I would hope to see it staged not too long after that.

BD:   What should be done on the other half of the bill
another contemporary work, or Pagliacci, or something else?

Ferris:   Maybe if we did Pagliacci, we’d be sure of a big audience for it.  [Laughs]  That’s a good question.  I can think of a number of one-act contemporary works that might fit with it.  Perhaps it would be good to do an already-known Twentieth-century work.  Maybe to open with the novelty piece first, and then close with something familiar.  I’m not quite sure how they’re going to handle it yet.

ferris BD:   I don’t mean just in this instance...

Ferris:   I’ve had many thoughts about that.  You’d probably be amazed at some of things I thought of coupling it with.  I was thinking of Les Mamelles de Tirésias of Poulenc.  That would be delightful, because it’s also sort of a zany epochal piece, but in a different way.  There, you don’t know who’s real or who isn’t real, and it’s such a wonderful score.  That might be a possibility if you wanted to keep the evening in that kind of atmosphere.

BD:   Yes, a tale about a man who has 40,000 offspring by himself is rather zany!

Ferris:   Yes, that’s right!  [Much laughter]  Or, in a more serious manner, I was actually talking with some friends recently who were thinking of something like Il Tabarro, which would be entirely different and very potent.  And there are the wonderful Ravel one-act operas, which are so splendid.  Either of those would be wonderful.  My orchestra is rather modest in size.  It certainly wouldn’t be as big as what would be needed for the Ravel, but maybe the Poulenc would work.  Then there are the smaller Britten works which might work very well.  His orchestras for the chamber operas are usually very small, going from twelve to fifteen players.  Mine’s a fairly modest sized symphony orchestra if you were doing it in a big house.

BD:   Thirty-five, or forty players?

Ferris:   Yes.  It could be that many in a bigger house, and then it could be brought down for a smaller house, too, with some of the doublings taken away.  But it will be done with either one or two pianos for this workshop.  At least if it’s one piano, we should have two pianists because it’s actually not necessarily good piano music.  It’s more of a reduction from the orchestration.  To make it sound, you’d need two pianists to make it work.  But I’m very excited about it.  To go back to your earlier question, there is another opera of mine which is a big three-acter based on James Costigan’s play, Little Moon of Alban.  That’s a full evening in the theater, and, as yet, it’s not been staged.  [Addressing the radio audience directly]  If there are any takers, I’d be happy to show them the score.  This is a really big work, full of all the stuff opera is about.

BD:   These are two works which have been written without any thought of them being performed.  Are they things that you just had to write?

Ferris:   Yes.

BD:   Do you see yourself as an opera composer?

Ferris:   I do, and that may seem surprising to some people, because most of the music of mine that’s known in this area is either choral music, orchestral music, organ music, some chamber music, and certainly songs.  But since neither opera has been done, and unless you spoke to me about having written them, you might not know them.  My early interest in opera was right from the time I was in high school, and went to the founding days of the Lyric Opera.  I had fantastic experiences in those days with singers like Jussi Björling, Tito Gobbi, Steber, Callas, Tebaldi... the list is legend.  Somehow or other, I felt very at home in that, and in the second year of high school, a friend of mine tried to sketch out some scenes for an opera that I wanted to do.  It didn’t go very far, and I can’t even remember what it was about at this point.  I did a children’s Christmas opera once when I was teaching in a high school.  I’ve always been fascinated by the lyric theater, and I still will write more operas.  Yes, I do write them because I have to.  I was moved by the play just as I was moved by the words to write a song, or a motet.  Of course, it takes much longer, and you really have to cut yourself off for a time from other compositions, because it takes as long as a year, or a year and a half.  The three-act opera certainly took that long, but the one-acter came rather quickly.  I took a sabbatical from teaching, and did it in about a semester’s time, and then orchestrated it the next semester because it just seemed to come to life very quickly.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Where is opera going today?

Ferris:   [Thinks a moment]  If you had asked me this question four or five years ago, I would have said that it was going the right way.  Opera was the place where composers were really going to prove themselves to a public who was there to be moved, entertained, fascinated, and gripped for two or three hours of theater.  A lot of young composers were trying their hand at opera.  It seems though, listening to some of the operas that have been composed within the last decade, many of them don’t seem to hold the board.  Either they don’t write effectively for the voice, or they pick stories that seem terribly convoluted.  Sadly, the newest work on the boards of the Metropolitan Opera this year is either Rosenkavalier or Tosca.  I don’t know whether we’ve broken through this luxury-liner of museum-piece house syndrome.  The New York City Opera tends now to be doing Brigadoon instead of new works, so I don’t feel as affirmative about it as I used to.  We’re very conscious of balancing the books.  We’re very conscious of the fact that we need big named international stars to assure us of full houses.  I read a fascinating article in The New York Times not long ago where Gian Carlo Menotti said that if an opera company is running in the black, they’re doing something wrong, and I think I know what he means.  He’s always been a man who took chances.  He did operas on Broadway when he was young, such as The Medium [which played 212 performances for seven months at the Ethel Barrymore Theater], and The Consul [which ran for 269 performances in almost eight months on that same stage].  He’s always associated himself with young singers, and young performers, and built things for them through their performances of his operas.  Thomas Schippers was twenty-one years old when he conducted Amahl and the Night Visitors.  He trusted in the young talent.  Now, he’s composed a work for Domingo on the life of Goya, which Domingo commissioned.  It’s a wonderful idea that singers would commission works.  But opera is becoming a kind of a fossil, I fear.  As much as I love the form, and as much as I probably madly enough will continue writing in it, I don’t know whether we could count more than a few new operas that we’ve seen in the big house in Chicago in the last thirty years.  I don’t think that’s a good sign.  Think of Verdi!  They couldn’t wait for each new opera from him.  [Note that this interview took place in 1986, just before Ardis Krainik launched the initiative called Toward the Twenty-First Century, which presented recent works as well as world premieres in each season.]  

BD:   Yet on the other hand, the Chicago Opera Theater is always bringing in new pieces.

Ferris:   That is really the hopeful one on the scene.  They’re filling a tremendous need, not just in this city but in the country.  If people are going to take their lead, they’re going to have to take it from a director who would take those chances.

BD:   So we in Chicago really are fortunate in having both.

Ferris:   Yes, that’s true.  There’s certainly still a public for opera, and with opera on television, more people are understanding and coming to it more quickly.

BD:   Does opera work on television?

Ferris:   [Laughs]  Well, for me it doesn’t, because the excitement is being in the big house.  Just the very notion of all those people together under one roof listening to that actual sound, there’s something very vivid happening that you can’t feel or sense on television.  Opera’s a great proscenium art form.  You need great space for opera to work in.  It’s very tiresome to zero in on one singer in a great ensemble, simply because they’re singing the text that needs to be watched at that moment.  Opera is a grand-manner art form, and you need a lot of space to bring it, and most television sets are small.

BD:   You don’t feel, though, that the current public, which has now become so enamored of recordings and electronic media, would find a live performance off-putting?

Ferris:   Yes, they actually may.  They’re getting a little bit spoiled at home.  Everything is being brought to them, but let’s be a little bit more optimistic.  If they are genuine about it, and go there, and do experience that kind of once-in-a-lifetime thrill, they’re going to be very aware of the differences, and want to choose the live theater over the recorded sound from time to time, just as for the same reason anyone goes to any live concerts.  I remember years ago, when I was a student studying with Leo Sowerby, he used to say,
I can’t imagine why anyone would listen to a recording, or a broadcast of a musical work if they could easily be in attendance, his idea of it being easily practical, with a place where it’s happening, and the money.  In a certain sense, I think that’s still is true.  The vitality of live performance is just unique.  Rooms vibrate with it, and people move with it.  It’s a wonderful thing.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Have your works been conducted by other people?

Ferris:   Yes, they have.

BD:   Are you pleased with the performances that other people do of your works?

ferris Ferris:   On the whole, yes I am, and I’m also enlightened because it makes me realize that there isn’t just your own singular approach to the work.  That’s very, very rewarding for the very simple reason that it means your notation works.  What you’ve put down, your directions, somehow or other really committed to paper a nice road map for a performance.

BD:   Is there ever a case when the performer finds things in your music that you didn’t know were there?

Ferris:   Oh, I think so.  For instance, I had a wonderful experience writing a flute sonata for Donald Peck.  His input was extraordinary, and not just because he knows the flute so well.

BD:   Was his input given before it was written?

Ferris:   It was during.  We had the most wonderful collaborative sessions about this work.  It was very rewarding because he is the pre-eminent performing musician that he is.  He was able to sense certain things from his viewpoint that would happen to listeners when a flute is playing that I never could have.  It gave me a wonderful sense of being inside that performer’s attitude.  Then his tremendous knowledge of the instrument, and what he felt works
or doesn’t workwith piano accompaniment, which helped me tremendously.  Also, just his limitless technique with regard to what you could do cadenza-wise.  If I had written the work without that input, it would be of a very different piece, and I don’t think nearly as satisfactory.  Maybe we should call it a collaborative work because of that.

BD:   Can somebody else perform it
perhaps someone not quite of his technical ability?

Ferris:   It’s a very difficult work, and I’m not suggesting that it could be played by just by any flautist, although it has now been played by two other very gifted flautists, both of whom, interestingly enough, were students of his.  But it’s a work that’s going to take a top-flight performer, maybe because of his input.

BD:   When you write for your Chorale, do you tailor it to your Chorale?

Ferris:   In a certain sense, yes.  There’s a certain warmth of sound, and certain techniques that I use as a choral conductor that make me imagine my choral music for them first of all.  But I’ve written so many works on commission from other choral groups, and heard them done by all kinds of singers
from children’s choirs, to boys’ choirs, to symphony chorusesthat in general my choral music would sound.  It would work pretty well with most choruses, but if I know I’m writing specifically for the Chorale, I might do one or two special things.  If there’s a certain sound that I’m very used to, and I am engaged with, say, in the alto section, I may feature that a little bit more, just as anyone would if they were writing for an orchestra.  When I wrote for the Chicago Symphony [Acclamations for Organ and Orchestra, performed in 1983], I began with an enormous horn call, because we all know the great strength and beauty of that section.  If I’d been writing for another orchestra, I don’t know if that would have been foremost in my imagination, because it’s so persuasive, and part of what we associate with that sound, and with that ensemble.  That may be true with the Chorale, toothat I am writing from a memory of their sound.

BD:   Is composing fun?

Ferris:   It’s not always fun.  I couldn’t live without it, and I do enjoy it a lot, and it’s fun when it’s going well.  When a piece is really cooking along, and you feel you’re making progress, it’s fun.  But if there are a lot of thorns, and a lot of revisions, and a lot of questioning and doubting, then it becomes very hard work, and you really have to toil.  But if it’s going well, it’s fun because you can always see a completion point.  You feel that the energy is there with you.  There certainly are times when you tear it up and throw it away, and you don’t want to do it again.  Very often, I get some good beginnings, and then set things aside because I don’t think they’re going to end up being what I had hoped for.

BD:   Do you come back to them?

Ferris:   Very often I do, although I must admit I have quite a large drawer of pieces that have begun very well, and are still waiting.

BD:   Do you ever use those ideas in something else?

Ferris:   Oh, sure, because if they are really good ideas, as we said much earlier about material generating form, I was going down the wrong road with them.  Finally, when you look at this material again, it really shows you what it could be, and the direction it can take.

BD:   If it won’t work for voices, it might for saxophones.

Ferris:   [Amused]  Yes.  Exactly.

BD:   Are you a composer, or a conductor, or a teacher, or what?  Label yourself.

Ferris:   I am a composer, and because I’m a composer I have to perform.  It helps me learn, it helps me express myself, it helps me know if my music works, and it allows me to perform other composer’s music so that I can learn and express their ideas.  It also helps my teaching.  I’m a natural born teacher in the sense that I like to help people find their way musically.  I like to talk about music a good deal, but mainly I’m a composer who does those other things.  I could certainly live without teaching, and, if I were forced to, I might be able to live without performing.  But I don’t think I’d be much of a person without composing.

At this point, we stopped for a few moments to take care of some technical details, and then continued . . .

Ferris:   I may have sounded a little negative about the future of opera, but what I was trying to say is that for a while it seemed like Beverly Sills was really going to take a lot of chances at the New York City Opera, and Christopher Keene was conducting there then.  But now it seems they’re going in a very funny kind of commercial direction.  Who needs more musical comedies on the opera stage?  I know it’s just for financial reasons, but that bothers me a bit.  Here at the Lyric, the productions are astoundingly good and effective, but, my God, we’re spending a lot of money on repeating repertoire.  At the Met, Renata Scotto is going to stage Madama Butterfly.  [She would later stage La Bohème and Ballo in Maschera at Lyric Opera of Chicago.]

BD:   Paolo Montarsolo has done some wonderful staging, as has Renato Capecchi.  Maybe in five or ten years your thoughts will change.  Or maybe by that time, opera will be dead and buried.

Ferris:   We’ll see!  [Both laugh]  For an art to last, you have to have a healthy influx of new works, and I don’t see that in opera the balance is really there.  It’s really in the minority.  The influx of new works is way down.  Santa Fe does more than the larger companies in that regard probably because they’re not so concerned about the huge costs.  They’re not looking so much to balance the books as they are really making a statement.  Interestingly enough, John Edwards told me once that a group like the Chorale could afford to take more chances simply because of that question.

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 and Washington.

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 their ‘watermark’]  

BD:   How do we get more people to be in favor of Twentieth century music?

Ferris:   They’ve just got to listen to it.  It’s got to be presented with the same regularity that we do other music.  When you think of the complexity of some Nineteenth century works that we blithely listen to all the time now, it’s only because we’ve heard them so many times.  A late Beethoven string quartet, to me, is just as tough as the Bartók Fifth String Quartet, but they’ve heard them.  The people have listened to every quartet in the world play the Ravel Quartet, so now it’s fine.  When it was first done, they promptly laughed Ravel out of the house, and said it sounded like a parrot screaming.  It has to be a good performance of contemporary music.

ferris BD:   A bad performance of contemporary music will really kill it.

Ferris:   That’s true.  It has to be very persuasively done, and it has to be done with the same care as other repertoire.  I heard an old acetate disc of Frederick Stock doing Leo Sowerby’s Symphony in C# Minor, which was commissioned for the Fiftieth anniversary of the Chicago Symphony.  My God, they played that piece so gorgeously.  It was played just as if they were playing Brahms or Wagner.  It was flawless, magnificent playing.  You’ve got to do it just as seriously.  You’ve got to spend as much time on it, because a lot of them would rather play the same stuff all the time, because it’s a lot easier.

BD:   I would find myself getting really bored playing the same stuff all the time.

Ferris:   Oh, God, I would too.  It would be hard to bring anything to it.  You could sort of fake around with it, but you couldn’t really bring much to it, but people just have to hear it.  Virgil Thomson, in his memoirs, said that up until Schoenberg, people couldn’t get enough Twentieth century music.  His attitude about Schoenberg was that he was a heretic, and that with heresy, certain things come out that are of value, but in general not everything is.  Thomson said that seemed to break the connection between audience and listeners, that Schoenberg scared the audience away by saying they had to be more intellectual, and that you had to explain a piece in great detail before you listened to it in order to know if you like it.  On the other hand, people love Poulenc and Stravinsky.

BD:   For whom do you write?

Ferris:   You really write to communicate with listeners.  You need to write.  You react to something as a human being who can express oneself in music, but what’s the point of putting it in a drawer?  The score isn’t the music for me.  The score is just a road map and until it’s performed, it is just notes on paper.

BD:   [Gently pressing the point]  Do you write for the audience?

Ferris:   Of course, for the listener, and I know right away if they get it.  I’ve been in the audience listening to my own music, and I can certainly sense something.

BD:   Good or bad?

Ferris:   Both!  I’ve sense both over the years, depending on the piece and depending on the performers.

BD:   Are you one of these that would rather be hated than just luke-warmed?  I assume you want to be loved, but would you rather get a good strong reaction one way of the other?

Ferris:   I’d rather be loved than luke-warmed.  I don’t know about hated.  I don’t know if any of us want to be hated.  I don’t think I’ve ever written anything that would make people hate me.  Maybe I’ve written things that might seem overly complex, but I don’t think you really have to be understood either.  As a person, if it’s persuasive music, who in the world can ever understand Beethoven?  And Amadeus shows us that no one understood Mozart.  But no, I don’t want to be hated.  That doesn’t make any sense.  One would not spend most of their adult life creating a body of works to make people hate you unless you are absolutely cuckoo.  [Both laugh]  Luke-warm is an awful thing.  Indifference is terrible for a composer.  I’d certainly like to have a reaction rather than no reaction, or just indifference.  If the thing disturbs people so much
and I have had one or two things like that happenpeople can really feel there was just nonsense.  I sat in the Kennedy Center listening to my Piano Sonata in 1976, and there was a couple sitting there with a kid who was fidgeting.  The mother said, “Pretty soon this odd piece will be over!”  [Both laugh]  Well, there you are.  Fortunately, when I came back from bowing, they were gone!  [Much laughter]  They probably felt as goofy as I did, but that’s just life.  I have found that most people don’t quite know what to say to you.  I wish people would be more open, and just come up and say something.  I don’t know what it is, but they’re sort of afraid.  It’s hard I know.  It’s hard for me to talk to other composers about their pieces, but it would just be nice if people would relax around me.  They do with performers, interestingly enough.  They’re not really afraid to say something to performers, but people have this awful feeling that Twentieth century music is so intellectual, and so serious, and so important that you dare not go up and say something because someone will think you’re a fool.  Well, that’s not true at all.  If you’re bored to death with something, say so.  Hindemith remarked that if a piece is too long, there’s something wrong with it.  If someone comes up after a new piece and says, “Oh, it was wonderful, but it was boring.  Do you think it was a little too long?”  Then Hindemith feels it’s the composer’s job to fix it.

BD:   Is the public always right in its judgment?

Ferris:   Ultimately, it seems to me the public is a lot righter than we give them credit for being.  The public is pretty right.  I’m not saying with a brand-new piece that everyone’s going to understand, or feel comfortable with what you’re doing.  Maybe it’s because there is a particular complex section that maybe lasts a fairly long time, so people might be put off.  No, I don’t think they’re always right in that sense in every detail, but over the long run, if they could hear my music as much as they’ve heard Stravinsky, or Beethoven, I would certainly be willing to listen a lot more.  They’d say,
I’ve heard that Flute Sonata fifteen times, and I love it, but there’s one thing near the end of the first movement that I always want to ask you about.”  That makes sense.  On the other hand, if it’s always just a one-time experience, that is not enough.  We’re always stuck with our first performance, and then where’s the second, or the third, or the fourth?  If you’ve done a work that lasts an hour, and someone comes up to you and says, “I thought it was this or that,” you can be put off, because you’ll wonder how could they feel that the first time around.  I always listen to what people say, I really do.  I think about it a lot, but if we could hear the stuff more, we wouldn’t be as afraid of it, and we might be able to put it in some kind of context, because there is a continuity.  As strange as the vocabulary of most composers is, there’s some connection with tonality.  I don’t care what you say, tonality is somehow there, along with the idea of tension and relaxation.  There’s some kind of fundamental thing that we usually tune in to that builds either a linear or a harmonic language for us.  I don’t know if today there’s any music that, if listened to, people couldn’t get something out of... at least those who are predisposed to listening to music at all.

BD:   We’ll continue this discussion for many years.

Ferris:   [Laughs]  Yes, I really appreciate this.  Thank you.

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 . . . . . . .

ferris BD:   We know you from conducting your Chorale, and from your compositions for the Chorale, and your instrumental compositions.  Now we’re going to learn a little bit about you as an opera composer.  Tell me a bit about The Diva.  When was it written, and how did it come about?

Ferris:   The Diva is not a new work.  It was written almost eighteen years ago, and it came about because of my association with the wonderful soprano, Eleanor Steber, who is a great friend of the Chorale.  She had sung here for us in programs honoring Samuel Barber, and also one for a benefit for the Chorale.  One time, when she was visiting, she said that it’s interesting to be an artist of her age because suddenly you look back and you say it was a career.  She told me she was singing from the age of twenty-three at the Met, and in those days, they practiced on the stage at nine in the morning.  She said that she had learned almost sixty roles by the time she was forty.  They just were used to that kind of activity back then.

BD:   If memory serves correctly, she was the one who did a marathon, singing a role in the afternoon, and another role in the evening.  [Desdemona in Otello, and Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte.]

Ferris:   That is right, yes.  She had great stamina.  She also premiered to great success Barber’s Vanessa, which was a wonderful triumph for him and for her.  It touched me because she was coming to the end of this glorious career, and still had a great deal of vitality and wasn’t looking back very much.  She was, in fact, teaching, and helping young singers, so this notion of a wonderful aging artist planted itself in my unconscious.  One summer night, while driving in a suburb of Chicago, I saw a little gazebo in the back yard of a very large home.  Everyone was singing, and having a wonderful time, and I thought suddenly of the idea of an aging diva coming back home.  The scenario dawned upon me rather quickly.  It’s a comic opera, and yet it’s a touching, Emperor’s Clothes story.

BD:   It’s a one-act piece?

Ferris:   It’s a one-act piece, in two scenes.  It’s about the fact that the diva is coming home after a huge triumphant career, not only to her home town, but to the place where she studied, the Island Bay Conservatory.  It’s a Middle-America thing, and has a fifty-ish look and the feel that they have at Northwestern.  At any rate, many people don’t think she can sing anymore, so they’re going to cover the evening by having the debut of a brilliant young coloratura from the school, just in case the diva isn’t successful.  Here’s where things get really get interesting, because when we get into the second scene, we start with a little choral madrigal, and then young ‘ingénue’ comes to sing, and she doesn’t sing well... although the critic thinks she does, and her admirers from the town think she does.

BD:   How difficult is it to get a real singer to sing badly?

Ferris:   [Laughs]  It’s very difficult!  In fact, there are two wonderful young coloraturas who are involved in this Northwestern production, and I was talking to them just the other evening.  They said it’s probably the most difficult thing for them to do, because it’s typically full of decorations and high voice trills, except they end on the wrong note, and the piano is on the right note.  It takes a very good ear, and to make it funny they have to be really superb, and they are very good.  But at any rate, the touching part of the story is that the people, who knew the diva in the beginning and really were moved by her, are still moved by her.  After this strange debut by the young soprano, the diva finally comes to sing.  The critic, by the way, walks out during her performance because he had already written his article.  Plus, he never liked her, anyway.  But she’s transcendent, and transforms the evening into a magical moment.  Everyone is simply transfixed at the end, and her former manager, the person who believed in her, simply approaches her and sings the word ‘diva’ twice, and we’re spellbound in the magic of the evening.

BD:   So it’s a triumph for the diva?

Ferris:   It actually is, yes, and also for those kinds of careers.

BD:   The opera is eighteen years old.  Was it done at the time it was written?

Ferris:   Actually, no.  It was finally done ten years ago in a workshop production by Chicago Opera Theater [review of this premiere is shown at right].  Only then we did it with just two pianos, and not orchestra in Curtiss Hall very successfully, I might say.  We had a good audience which was very responsive, and a very good cast.  I did orchestrate it for a rather large Puccini-size orchestra shortly after I wrote it.  But when I was talking with the folks at Northwestern, we realized that we wouldn’t have those kinds of resources.  So, I did what is the most difficult thing a composer can do, which is rework it down to a small orchestra.  It’s much easier to work it up from small to large, but I acted as if I’d never scored it.  I just looked at the vocal score anew, and wrote it for this small ensemble.  I never referred once to the big orchestra.  I’m having a first orchestral rehearsal on Monday, and I think it’s going to work.

BD:   Tell me more about the cast.  There’s the diva, the young soprano, the critic...

Ferris:   ...and a lot of wonderful smaller roles.  There’s the Dean of School, the Mayor of the Town, the Director of the Conservatory Band & Chorus.  There’s the music critic, Oliver Stark; Loretta Norris, the young soprano; the young singer’s voice teacher, who also plays piano for her; and David Brown, who was the man who always believed in the diva and was her manager in the early years; as well as a raft of talented people.  The fun thing for me is that the Chorale is singing the part of the town’s people, so it’s a big chorus.  The choral parts are important, so much so that in the first scene the chorus dominates.  They’re waiting for her train to arrive, so there’s a lot of feverish and fun activity.  But you get to know all these smaller characters pretty well.  It’s a good-sized cast, about ten singing principal singing parts.

BD:   Are many of the soloists members of the Chorale?

Ferris:   No, the soloists come from Northwestern.  The Chorale is simply the chorus.

BD:   Was it fun to go back into the opera and rework it after all this time?

Ferris:   At first it was a little daunting because I never thought I’d do that.  I thought it was there, and ready!  After I got into it, though, it was fun, and I really rethought it.  I didn’t change any voice lines or harmonies.  I thinned things out, and made them a little more brittle and shiny.  But it was fun to be back, and I really learned the work again.  I like it!  [Both laugh]

BD:   As a composer, do you expect the audience to like it, or be amused by it, or to learn something about it?

Ferris:   The audience liked it when we did it ten years ago... at least I felt they were very responsive.  It’s entertaining, certainly.  It’s fresh, it’s romantic in a certain sense, and it has a certain pithy quality.  It sounds like my music, and I think they’ll be entertained.  I hope maybe they will learn something.  I’ll hope they’ll listen, and feel things naturally.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’re the founder of a group of voices.  Does that make you particularly adept at writing for voices?

Ferris:   I hope so, because I’ve written so much music for voices.  I love singers, and everything that I wrote tries to sing, in a certain sense, even the orchestral writing.

BD:   You say you love singers.  Do you love the voice?

ferris Ferris:   Oh, yes, I do.  I respect and love the voice, and I try, even in my instrumental writing, to make things sing in the most general sense, because the voice is so absolutely elemental, and yet so toweringly expressive.  When you add to it a wonderful text, where you’re communicating on that level, too, there’s not anything quite like it.  Working all these years with singers
both alone in unaccompanied music, and then doing so many Twentieth-century things with different instrumental ensemblesI always believed the voice is the sovereign ingredient of all these things, and probably always will be.

BD:   What advice do you have for composers who want to write for the voice these days?

Ferris:   They should certainly get to know singers; listen to singers; certainly listen to choruses.  They should try to sing themselves.  God forbid, we have to hear them, as most composers don’t have very good voices.  [Laughs]

BD:   Should they maybe take a voice lesson or two?

Ferris:   Absolutely, or get into some small choral group.  To conduct singers, you certainly have to know how to sing.  Margaret Hillis always said that, and I believe it too.  Robert Shaw said the same thing.  You may not sound beautiful, but you have to know what’s happening physically so that these singers can produce the sound.  Actually, composers who want to write for the voice should really understand how to set texts, and look at the great composers who have done it.  It’s not an easy job, and you have to really want to communicate, but also love the text and not get in its way.  That’s very important.

BD:   When your score is finished, is it a complete work, or is not really complete until it’s performed?

Ferris:   Oh, I’m certain it’s not complete until it’s in the performance.  As beautiful a score may be, I hope that I get the sounds down the way I imagine them.  It’s an abstraction until it takes form of sound.  It’s a road map, really, and to just sit and stare at that doesn’t mean much to me at all.  With a theatrical work, this is a joy for me to now see it in costume.  I’ve been fascinated by the staging rehearsals.  I’m learning more about it myself because some other people, who know it very well that way, are not bringing it to life in that manner.  Although I imagine those things pretty much when I’m writing it, they have a whole different view, and that’s very, very helpful to me.

BD:   Did you set your own text?

Ferris:   Actually, no.  I did the scenario.  My librettist, John Vorrasi, and I have done others, and many sacred cantatas.  I’ve done two Christmas cantatas, and another generic work called Song of Light.  I have also done a very big, three-act opera with him called Little Moon of Alban, which has yet to reach the boards.  I hope it will someday.  It’s a central work of my output, but it’s a very big work.  It’s a full evening in the theater, with a very big orchestra, and a very big cast.  It
s a very expensive proposition, as we all know.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Are there ever times when the composer and the librettist don’t get along?

Ferris:   Yes! 
One thing John has found about me, and which helps him very much as a librettist, is that I don’t need many words to produce a lot of music.  I can get a lot done with a few important activity words, and words that really come from the soul of those characters.  They need not be too descriptive.  The drama can be in the music, so he’s learned to hone things down and be very, very direct, and that helps me a lot.

BD:   Does it help that your librettist is an accomplished singer, rather than just a novelist?

Ferris:   [Laughs]  I would never say
just a novelist.  That’s not a bad thing to be!  But it certainly helps because he knows where to place vowels.  Also, if you’re setting something up very high, and if it’s a dramatic moment, if the librettist doesn’t sense that, then the composer is going to have a bigger struggle getting the thing to work.  It’s true in the past, too.  Look how wonderfully Boito and Verdi finally collaborated on the Shakespeare works.  It’s amazing.

*     *     *     *     *

ferris BD:   You work with texts so much.  Is it more difficult, or is it perhaps a nice break, to have no text?

Ferris:    It’s lovely, and in fact I’ve always disciplined myself to do what I call
satellite works for instruments alone, without voice and without text around the time that I’ve written works with texts.  Even if I’ve written just a series of songs, then I’d like to do a chamber work, or a piano work, or something like that.

BD:   To clean the palette?

Ferris:   Yes, and also because words help you formally.  Words give you a sense of shape almost immediately, because of what they’re about and where they’re going.  Certainly, if they’re in a play or drama, that has to be the case.

BD:   Even the rhythm of the words?

Ferris:   Of course, oh, sure.  I’m not going to say that it’s easier to write a work with words or voices, because, as we know, certain composers don’t do it so easily.  But for me, it’s been very natural, and the thing that maybe I do the most often.  I love to do non-verbal works.  For instance, I just finished a new short work for flute and viola for the upcoming National Flute Convention.  It’ll be done here in August, and I really do enjoy that very much, just going to write for instruments.  I’ve written a lot of chamber music, and a good number of orchestral works, too.

BD:   When you write for singers, or for a specific singer, you have that specific singer in mind.  Can you do the same thing with an instrumentalist?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Mary Stolper, Easley Blackwood, John La Montaine, Robert Muczynski, and Leon Stein.]

Ferris:   Yes.  I’ve been very lucky, because probably the most exciting thing for me was when I wrote my Flute Sonata for Don Peck.  I’d grown up listening to his sound within the orchestra, and it was a real joy to have him ask me to do this work.  I had a wonderful time with him, because every six weeks or so, we’d get together and he’d play through what I had written.  It is absolutely his sound that I was thinking of.  Just like we think of a certain timbre of a certain singer that we love, I think that’s true of instrumentalists too, and I wish we could do more of that.

BD:   Then, can some other flute player play it?

Ferris:   Of course, and that’s interesting, too.  It may not be that exact memory of what you had, but if the work is going to have any endurance and universality, it has to be able to withstand performances by other people and work as well.

BD:   How much pushing and pulling can the performer do with your music, and still make it music of William Ferris?

Ferris:   They have to play the notes and rhythms that I put down, but there’s a lot of different kinds of colors and timbres that instrumentalists can bring, just as so many singers are different.  I spoke earlier about Eleanor Steber... just think of one of her great roles, Tosca.  Think of the interpretations by Callas, Zinka Milanov, and Steber.  Those three are so different one from another as far as timbre and the sound of their voices, yet they were all wonderful Toscas, and essentially that character when they were singing it.  That’s what I mean about a sound picture that can be different.  I don’t think you can re-organize the work, or change its structure, but you can bring to it tremendous amount of flexibility.

BD:   Do you expect that?

Ferris:   Oh, yes, because a musical composition is a living thing.  It’s a work-in-progress from the first note to the end, even though we put the notes on paper.

BD:   Is there such a thing as a perfect performance?

Ferris:   There are performances I have in my memory that came very close to that, and which I will always cherish
not only of my own music, but of other composer’s music.  It sets a standard for you, and then you hear something else that may not be as perfect, but may be terribly exciting because it’s different.  It emphasizes different aspects of the piece, because people find things, and they approach it differently, but that first performance will always stay there.  I want the pieces to live beyond that, so I hope other performers would approach them, and try to make them their own.

BD:   Let me ask the really easy question.  What’s the purpose of music?

Ferris:   For me, it’s my voice, it’s my stabilizer, it’s my expressive quotient, it’s my friend, it’s my master.  It is maybe the best part of me.  When I discovered, as a young kid, that I could put notes on paper, I imagined these sounds in my head and I went down a different corridor, and it’s been the discipline of my life ever since.  The purpose of music for everyone is to feel human.  It’s the greatest art, the most human art.  Communication is essential, and in all the music I’ve done as a performer, however complex, communication is what it’s about.  When you talk about a perfect performance as something that’s technically exact but doesn’t communicate anything, it’s not quite alive.  It’s like a ship in a bottle.  I’d like all my ships to sail, to be sea-worthy!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you get enough time to compose these days?

ferris Ferris:   There’s never enough time, because I am the Music Director of a large church music program at Mount Carmel Church, and there’s the Chorale.  But I do reserve days where I’m just a composer and nothing else.  Once I have my ideas, I work very quickly.  I’m pretty disciplined.  I know how to get the stuff on paper.

BD:   When you reserve a day, do you know the ideas will come on that day?

Ferris:   No, of course not!  [Laughs]  Sometimes I mope around that day wishing they were there, but there are always things you can do to keep busy.  There may be some orchestration, or some copying of earlier works, or looking for texts for future works.  I want to be in the framework of composing, even if I’m not really putting anything on paper that day.

BD:   So you really do accomplish something?

Ferris:   Oh absolutely.  Thursdays are my sacrosanct days for that, the way my life is now, and sometimes Fridays, too.  It’s seems like such a little bit of time, but if I can devote the whole day to it, I can get a lot done.

BD:   Do you work on one piece at a time, or do you have a couple going at once?

Ferris:   I have so many unfinished pieces that are still there, but basically I like to finish a piece.  So, I do work on the one piece until it’s at a point where I’m getting near the end, or seeing the end.  Then I might take a break, and go back and look at something else, or pull something out of the bench that I’ve been hoping to get back in touch with for a while.  I like to finish things because then I feel I can move back to the others.  The unfinished ones are like funny children that never grow up.  Maybe I didn’t like them well enough at that time, but there’s still something in those sketches that fascinate me, and I’d love to finish those.  I’d love to get that whole drawer complete.

BD:   Aren’t there some sketches that just won’t work for some reason?

Ferris:   Oh, there are many that have been thrown away already, because they’re the wrong sketches for the wrong pieces.  When I taught composition, I used to say that it’s really the music that generates the form.  All too often, we think, we are going to write a sonatina, so how am I going to go about this?  But what it is, is that you hear sonatina material.  There is something that will fit into those wonderful forms, and so sometimes they’re the wrong sketches.  You’re thinking about a piece, but the sketches are not the right ones.  I don’t throw them away right away.  I just put them in another place.  Some things I’ve saved for a very long time and used in different pieces.  It’s like they were waiting to be found, so I do not throw everything away.  My teacher was Leo Sowerby, and I studied composition with him for five years.  He always felt that if it wasn’t working, just toss it out, and work on something else.  He never liked revision much.  He said don’t revise anything.

BD:   So throw it away, and don’t save it?

Ferris:   When you’re eighteen years old, you think every measure you write is a very important piece of music, and he could tell that I was hanging onto a lot of stuff, and not moving forward enough.  So, that’s what he was telling me to do
maybe save it, or maybe not, but get it out of here for a while.  Move on, and dont worry so much about revising things right away.  Let it live for a while, let it stay, and move on to something new.  Then come back to it, because we always learn new things about our craft as we move on.  Also, revising things is a little tricky.  I didn’t really revise The Diva.  I re-orchestrated it because those pieces are a picture of your soul, or of your life at that time.  If you come back twenty years later, you’re different.  You may have more technical skill, so you begin hacking away to make this a little bit more fascinating, and more adroit, or something, but maybe that’s not what that piece is supposed to be.  So, I don’t really do too much of that sort of thing.

BD:   When you’re composing, are you creating the material, or are you discovering the material?

Ferris:   That’s a wonderful question.  It’s hard to say that anyone can create anything anymore.  I hear something inside of me, and try to release it.  I think it’s in there.  I don’t think, for instance, that I compose by picking things from outside.  There’s something inside of me that I try to get out on the paper.  It may be an impulse, or a melody, and the shape of a work can come to me very quickly.  Then I realize that the shape comes to me because the sound is somewhere there, too.  So, I work and I listen.  I use the piano sometimes as an improvisatory tool, and it can be very helpful in bringing things to formal level where I can put them down on paper.  But it’s interesting because I’m never satisfied until it takes on the imagined sound.  It’s tough sometimes.  Wonderful as it is, notation is very limiting, sometimes.

BD:   It is very imprecise.

Ferris:   Right, exactly.  I often wonder how playwrights stand it, because they have nothing precise except the words and the grammar, and there are all those different voices, and all those different pacings.  In music, we control so much more, and yet how much can we really control?

BD:   Thank you for the conversation.  I appreciate it!

Ferris:   It was nice for me, too, because I have thought about those things that you asked, but I don’t often articulate them to myself.

Notable Chicago Composer, Renaissance Man of Music

by John von Rhein, Tribune Music Critic   Chicago Tribune, May 18, 2000

The last large-scale work by William Ferris, a prolific composer and conductor who elevated Chicago's place in the elite world of choral music, was titled "Angels," an exultant work for chorus and two organs. In keeping with his affinity for grand spiritual themes, it was fitting that Ferris' sudden death was a dramatic intersection of life and art.

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.

© 1986 & 1997 Bruce Duffie

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.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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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.