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Howard Smith
Music & Vision, May 2011

Ferris’ visionary leaning is especially evident in the title item of the program—the 1994 setting of Stephen Spender’s great hymn to spiritual heroes of our civilization, Corridors of Light.

In addition to John Shirley-Quirk’s magnificent baritone solo, the chorus is accompanied by an ensemble of piano, percussion and strings, with the exquisite solo oboe adding to Spender’s text in a number of broad entr’actes.

This performance with widely acclaimed Shirley-Quirk and the late lamented Sara Watkins (1945–1997), oboist and former resident conductor of the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, serves as a tribute to the glorious artistry of Watkins (also known as Mrs Shirley-Quirk).

Well worth investigating.

Ken Smith
Gramophone, April 2011

Hometown boy made good—Chicago-born William Ferris conducts his own works

In Chicago, William Ferris (1937–2000) was known as a musical hometown boy made good, a one-time treble singer and promising keyboardist who became a composer with more than 500 pieces in his catalogue by the time of his death. Outside Chicago (thanks largely to the efforts of the Chicago-based label Cedille), Ferris is now remembered mostly as a conductor with immaculate taste in the music of his time and the co-founder of the chorus that still bears his name. This collection should help correct the imbalance.

Whether it was Ferris the choral conductor who influenced Ferris the composer or the other way around, the relationship between the two is not in question. Even the sole non-vocal piece in this collection, Bristol Hills (1969) for string orchestra, is full of an unbridled, Barber-like lyricism that favours emotional directness over orchestrational pyrotechnics. When words are involved, whatever the language—compare Salvatore Quasimoto’s Ed è subito sera (1965) or Stephen Spender’s “The Truly Great”, the basis for Ferris’s Corridors of Light (1993)—music emanates organically from the text, the relationship between the two becoming truly transparent, the music’s winding structure enveloping the words in a comforting harmonic language.

The downside of this, however, becomes apparent right from the opening Gloria (1992). Obviously aware of the text’s musical precedents (Poulenc and Rutter being but two of the more recent), Ferris’s creative urges seem decidedly tempered. Torn between offering something new and not jolting conservative listeners, the music works hard to be loved but never quite delivers the exultation promised in the text.

Paul A. Snook
Fanfare, March 2011

This lovely disc is devoted to a composer—William Ferris (1937–2002)—who never received the recognition he deserved outside of the specialized circles of church and organ music. A native of Chicago and a student of, among others, Alexander Tcherepnin and Leo Sowerby, Ferris was a brilliant organist and choral conductor who, through his leadership of the William Ferris Chorale, created a body of glorious vocal works, of which three of the most significant receive their premiere recordings on this CD sponsored by the Cedille Foundation, which is dedicated to promoting composers from the Chicago school.

Although Ferris produced a quantity of secular works, including a tempestuous organ concerto (Acclamations), premiered by himself with the Chicago Symphony, as well as a ravishing symphonic movement October-November, his reputation is highest in the field of liturgical music. And this relatively late example of the Gloria (1992) is a superb embodiment of the continuation of the lyrico-dramatic manner exemplified by his most influential mentor, Leo Sowerby. Its idiom is characterized by long expansive vocal lines supported by a richly modulating harmonic foundation combined with an exceptionally fluid and plangent tone.

The much earlier solo cantata—Et È subito Sera (And Suddenly It Is Evening)—based on the enigmatic poetry of Nobel Prize-winner Salvatore Quasimodo—shows Ferris gradually working his way toward a subtle and expressive setting of some rather difficult texts. Of the four works recorded here, however, it leaves a somewhat more nebulous and tentative impression.

Then follows Bristol Hills (1969), the only purely instrumental work here, a short but telling evocation of a specific locale in New York State’s Finger Lakes region with an almost visionary intensity.

This visionary intensity is especially evident in the capstone of the program—the 1994 setting of Stephen Spender’s great hymn to the spiritual heroes of our civilization, Corridors of Light. The most striking element in this score is the presence, in addition to the baritone soloist and chorus accompanied by a very effectively deployed ensemble of piano, percussion and strings, of a solo oboe commenting on the text in a series of lengthy instrumental interludes. This live performance featuring legendary baritone John Shirley-Quirk and the noted oboist Sara Watkins, all under the direction of the composer, attains and sustains a level of exalted eloquence and celebration that underlies and encapsulates all the outstanding qualities of Ferris’s music.

Ferris spent his later years as an organist in Rochester, and in a way this was especially fitting because his style combines the traits of Sowerby with the Eastman school of Hanson and Bernard Rogers, with a bit of Randall Thompson. These readings must be considered definitive as Ferris was personally involved in two of them as conductor (Gloria and Corridors), while his lifelong friend and partner John Vorassi is soloist in the Quasimodo cantata. Only Bristol Hills was recorded outside of Chicago (in London), but this too is appropriate as anyone who enjoys the English vocal-choral tradition of Delius, Vaughan Williams, and Walton will find these works immediately and deeply engaging, and should not miss this very moving release.

Philip Greenfield
American Record Guide, March 2011

For many years William Ferris was a jewel in Chicago’s musical crown. Indeed, the Chorale he formed in 1971 still is. Ferris (1931–2000) was an accomplished composer as well as a conductor, and each of these works is worthy of attention. The most riveting is Ed E Subito Sera (And Suddenly, It’s Evening), a 23-minute solo cantata for tenor and strings inspired by the poetry of Salvatore Quasimodo, the Italian Nobel Laureate for Literature in 1959. The poems burst with life even when they get sad, and Ferris’s writing catches their energy in four free-flowing, operatically-charged arias. They are sung with proprietary flair by tenor John Vorrasi, who, the notes tell us, is a poet himself as well as the composer’s longtime partner. Supported by a string ensemble under the direction of (former ARG reviewer) Alan Heatherington, Vorrasi’s blend of power and lyricism makes the cantata the high point of the program.

Also noteworthy is Corridors of Light, a 21-minute single-movement setting of Stephen Spender’s poem ‘The Truly Great’. Ferris wrote it for baritone soloist, obbligato oboe, and orchestra. Again, the poetry was jumping off the page even before he got ahold of it. (“I think continually of those who were truly great. Who from the womb, remembered the soul’s history through corridors of light.”) And again, exemplary soloists came to Chicago to explore the work’s relentless energy and twisting emotions. John Shirley-Quirk was in very good form back in 1995, as was his wife Sara Watkins, the one-time principal oboist of the National Symphony who died suddenly two years after this concert was given. Bristol Hills is a lush, Vaughan-Williamsy idyll for strings (around 8 minutes long) that recalls the natural beauty of New York State’s Finger Lakes region. Performed nicely by the London Strings under Arnie Roth’s direction, it is the only studio performance on the program. The others, recorded in concert, fill the room nicely, save for the brassy ‘Gloria’, which sounds distant and a mite dim. Also, had this been a studio recording, additional takes of the orchestral introduction could have been arranged. (It took a couple of minutes for the players to come together under the composer’s baton.) Cedille offers excellent notes and texts and translations in this tribute to a musician whose legacy still graces cultural life in the Windy City.

Bill Gowen
Daily Herald (IL), January 2011

Chicago-based Cedille Records continues to release the world-premiere recordings of music by the late composer-conductor William Ferris (1937–2000), restored from archival tapes, many from his William Ferris Chorale concerts at Chicago’s Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church. This collection features a pair of orchestral works and two with chorus.

Daniel Coombs
Audiophile Audition, December 2010

Beautiful tribute to a late, great choral master who deserves to be better known.

Being from Chicago, I have been aware of William Ferris and his wonderful chorale. I am a little less familiar with Ferris’s work as a composer and arranger. Ferris died in 2000, leaving a solid legacy in the Chicago musical scene as a conductor, as a promoter of living American composers and as a lively and passionate promoter of the arts with an avid following. This wonderful new disc from the Chicago-based Cedille FOUNDation reveals Ferris as composer.

Stylistically, his music is not a far cry from the tonal, melody-laden and audience-pleasing genre typified by John Rutter, for example. This is a compliment, for Ferris wanted music to attract and captivate and Ferris wrote music that he “would want to listen to.” Each piece in this collection is, indeed, attractive and well crafted. The opening work, a setting from the Latin “Gloria” was written in 1992 and does impart both a very spiritual sound as well as exuberance pertinent to the tone of the text. Ferris was a big fan of the choral works of some of the French composers, such as Poulenc and Honegger, but this work is more clearly inspired by the text itself. In this performance, the Ferris Chorale and the solo quartet perform wonderfully.

“Ed e Subito Sera” (and, Suddenly, It’s Evening) is a very different but also strongly written and accessible work for a solo tenor and strings. The four movement work, written in 1965, is based on poetry by the mid-twentieth century poet and philosopher Salvatore Quasimodo. The texts are practically transcendental in their depictions of nature, life and, implicitly, of aging. The vocal writing is strong and tenor John Vorrasi, a long time friend and collaborator of Ferris, gives a musically excellent and emotionally impacting performance. The final aria, “Perhaps the Heart” is especially poignant in its resignation, tinged with comfort.

“Bristol Hills” (1969) offers a quite different view of Ferris’s output. This brief plaintive work for string orchestra is lush and very picturesque in its feel. It reminded me a bit of the nature inspired works by some of the lesser known English writers, such as Hubert Parry or Gerald Finzi. Like the “outdoors” pieces of those composers, Ferris intended “Bristol Hills” as a reflection on the scenery in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York and his time there with John Vorrasi. The work is dedicated to Vorrasi and is intentionally lush, romantic and pastoral in its impact. The London Symphony Strings under Arnie Roth perform very well and have a very unified sound, full and scenic at times, necessarily light and wispy at others.

The title work for this disc, “Corridors of Light”, from 1994, takes its name from words and the resultant image in the poem, “The Truly Great” by American poet Stephen Spender. This is the most full and declamatory piece in this set, with big sonorous orchestral writing and a full choral timbre. The work features a prominent baritone soloist, in this case the great John Shirley-Quirk and a very nice, atmospheric oboe obbligato; performed wonderfully by another late great Chicagoan, Sarah Watkins. The effect of this piece is majestic. There is a true cantata feel bolstered by the large scale sound and the superb performances including the William Ferris Chorale and orchestra under the direction of the composer. The text is a bold dramatic paean to those Spender and the reader consider “truly great”. The imagery is almost akin to Blake in its use of nature to extol humanity (sunlight, rocks, flowers, waving fields, et cetera).The intended “great” could be almost anyone—war heroes, personal sacrifice, defenders of the downtrodden or perhaps any single person who stands for what is right. The poem and the music make a strong case for the “Truly Great.” Anyone not very familiar with Ferris or his music should listen to this and, I believe, would wonder if it is time that—in the world of American born choral masters and composers—Ferris also be counted among the truly great.

Marvin J. Ward
Classical Voice of North Carolina (, December 2010

This music deserves a wider audience, and perhaps the existence of this recording at such a reasonable price—nearly bargain basement!—will encourage other singers, chorus directors, and orchestra conductors to program it and seek out yet others of Ferris’ compositions. Perhaps Cedille has some more recordings in its vaults that it can bring out on a sequel to this fine CD?
© Marvin J. Ward & CVNC. Reproduced with permission. Read complete review

Stephen Eddins, November 2010

William Ferris (1937–2000) was a musician well-loved in the Chicago area. Best known for founding the William Ferris Chorale in 1971 with John Vorrasi, he was also a prolific composer with over 500 works to his credit. This disc includes four of his pieces that include orchestra: one featuring baritone, oboe, and chorus; one with tenor solo; one with chorus; and one for orchestra alone. The most impressive is the solo cantata, Ed È Subito Sera, a setting of four texts by Italian poet Salvatore Quasimodo, composed in 1965. Written in a warmly Italianate post-Romantic idiom, it has a captivating lyric sweep. The text setting is effective, with strong melodic lines and clearly differentiated movements. Vorrasi has a clarion, expressive tenor, and he brings an impassioned intensity to the music. He is capably accompanied by the Chicago String Ensemble, led by Alan Heatherington. Ferris composed Corridors of Light, a setting of Stephen Spender’s poem “The Truly Great” for John Shirley-Quirk and his wife, oboist Sara Watkins, who perform it here with the composer leading his Chorale and the Composer Festival Orchestra. Shirley-Quirk is in fine form, singing with power and commitment. A 20-minute through-composed piece, Corridors of Light doesn’t have the distinctiveness of the earlier work. It is lyrical, but in a meandering way that doesn’t provide much sense of direction or purpose. The same could be said, but even more emphatically, about Ferris’ Gloria, which lacks strong motivic material or a coherent form. The brief Bristol Hills: A Reflection for String Orchestra is not particularly distinguished, but it’s well played by the London Symphony Strings, led by Arnie Roth. The recordings were made in various venues, but Cedille’s sound is clean and balanced.

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