Review: "Christmas in Harvard Square"
  • OlbashOlbash
    Posts: 310
    "Christmas in Harvard Square" by The Boys of St. Paul's Choir School
    Available direct from St. Paul's:
    Also available from Amazon:

    The Boys of St. Paul's Choir School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have just released their debut international recording, the aptly named, “Christmas in Harvard Square.” Indeed, in every way, this disc captures the very essence of worship at St. Paul's during the Christmas season, not only with its characteristic blend of carols and traditional English Christmas anthems, but also with its distinctively Catholic chant and polyphony. From the very moment one lays eyes on the attractive cover art and liner notes, designed by the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles, one is greeted by the familiar architectural features of St. Paul’s, including the handsome marble altar rail, the statue of the Madonna and Child in the north transcept, and the majestic pillared reredos at the head of the sanctuary. Thanks to the leadership of Rev. Michael Drea, the current pastor, the Blessed Sacrament has been restored to the tabernacle of the high altar, once again giving the place of highest prominence to Our Lord and Savior, a Christocentrism reflected in every facet of this exquisite new recording.

    "Christmas in Harvard Square" features a good number of traditional carols, giving the recording broad appeal to the casual listener, but presented in a fresh way for the sacred music enthusiast. John Robinson's clever descants offer a welcome alternative to the ubiquitous Sir David Willcocks arrangements, though Robinson's setting of the accompaniment to the final stanza of "O Come, All Ye Faithful" is an obvious and pleasing hommage to the genius of Willcocks' brilliant organ arrangement. "Once in Royal David's City" features the traditional boy solo at the beginning and a newly minted descant, evocative of the distinctive tower bells which chime every quarter hour at St. Paul's. For my tastes, the descant over the final stanza of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" rides a little too consistently above the staff without relief, but the organ accompaniment more than compensates, with a playful pedal line to provide both support and forward motion. Perhaps the most pleasing of the traditional carols on this recording is "Angels We Have Heard," which alternates the boy choir and men's schola in the second and third stanza, illustrating the ethereal call of the angels and the earnest response of the shepherds. Robinson's descant in the final stanza not only captures the bucolic mood of the text but employs a remarkably large range, easily achieved by wisely pitching the entire hymn a whole step lower than the traditional F Major.

    Many choral ensembles include Gregorian chant in concert programs and recording projects as novelty items which tend to sound like precious, fragile museum pieces. In contrast, the two Gregorian introits on this recording -- "Dominus Dixit" and "Puer Natus Est" -- were lively and expressive, the kind of chant singing which can only be achieved when the Gregorian plainsong is part of the living, daily prayer life of a choral ensemble. The singing is full-voiced and perfectly pitched, with expressiveness achieved through vocal accents rather than “scooping up” from a fifth or octave below, as is regrettably fashionable among too many chant scholae these days. If any flaw could be detected, one might observe that the stiff tempi of the chants prevented them from transmitting their subtle nuances and natural ebb and flow.

    The polyphony is reverent yet whimsically buoyant, infused with the sort of joy a wide-eyed boy might experience on a happy Christmas morning. For example, it is nearly impossible for any choir to sing the final "Alleluia" section of the Victoria "O Magnum Mysterium" without sounding either cold and academic or boorish and overstated; but Robinson deftly navigates the divide between these two pitfalls, achieving a balance which is both robust and reasonably tempered. In both the Victoria and Handl’s “Omnes de Saba Veniet,” the men and boys achieve perfect blend and flawless intonation.

    The solo singing on the recording is consistently first-rate, but the particularly outstanding artistry of chorister Mark Flynn warrants mention. His warm and expressive tone, paired with impeccable diction and unimpeachable intonation, distinguishes him as one of the most important treble voices on the recording scene in this decade. His heartfelt performance in the first stanza of Harold Darke's “In the Bleak Midwinter” is simply dazzling; and, though I have listened to the recording at least a dozen times in the past week, the refreshing honesty and purity of his solo at the opening of Michael Head’s “The Little Road to Bethlehem” consistently brings me to tears.

    Indeed, some of the most beautiful tracks on the recording are the English choral anthems, old and new. In addition to the Darke and Head, "Christmas in Harvard Square" features several other anthems, including the David Willcocks "Ding Dong Merrily on High," the Andrew Carter "A Maiden Most Gentle," and Elizabeth Poston's "Jesus Christ the Apple Tree." While the WIllcocks unravels a bit in the reverberant acoustic of St. Paul's, the Carter is as good or better than Carter's original recording with the venerable John Scott at the organ. The Poston is arguably the finest recording of the work ever created -- perfection.

    Signs of John Robinson’s skill as composer and arranger are not limited merely to descants on this recording. His arrangement of Sabine Baring-Gould’s “The Infant King” for treble voices preserves the pastoral character of the traditional Basque melody. Pitching the entire carol in G Major allows the boys to sparkle in the upper range, while still making the low G below the staff available as a foundation; and, by limiting his harmonic compass to chords native to the key, it makes the use of the lowered seventh at the mention of the Lord’s burial all the more poignant. His arrangement of the “Mater Ora Filium” of Charles Wood, as well as a newly-composed setting of “I Sing of a Maiden,” are also both noteworthy.

    Dr. Jonathan Wessler, the assistant organist at St. Paul’s, proves himself to be a nimble and reliable accompanist in every track of this recording. Eschewing the dreadfully overvoiced pipework in the chancel (lovingly nicknamed by locals as the “Bangladesh organ”), Wessler almost exclusively uses the original 1905 Woodberry organ in the west gallery. I am told that he employed some of the digital voices of the 1999 Turner renovation, but his sparing, judicious use was undetectable to my ear.

    When my dear friend and colleague Mark Husey of St. Peter’s, Columbia, SC, was in Boston this summer for the national convention of the American Guild of Organists, he attended the final dress rehearsal of the Boys of St. Paul’s Choir School as they were preparing for the closing ceremonies of the convention. Knowing that he had not heard the boys sing for several years, I asked him what his impressions of the choir were, compared with his previous experiences. He replied, “There is no ‘before’ picture,” meaning that it is simply impossible to compare the current choir to previous generations. What Fr. Drea describes in the liner notes as a “great renaissance” at the choir school is not simply a new chapter, but perhaps an entirely new book. “Christmas in Harvard Square” is a beautiful glimpse into the first few pages – let us pray that the story continues to unfold for many years to come.
    Thanked by 2Spriggo CHGiffen
  • Adam WoodAdam Wood
    Posts: 6,338
    Can I repost this to the Cafe and/or One Peter Five?
  • OlbashOlbash
    Posts: 310
    Yes, please!
  • Beth
    Posts: 53
    Great review, thanks for posting this. I have attended the Saturday vigil mass at St. Paul's church and have heard this progression of excellence develop over these past years.
  • OlbashOlbash
    Posts: 310
    Thanks, Beth. And thanks to Adam Wood for sharing my scribblings with a wider audience.

    In the interest of full disclosure: Some of you might have noticed my familiar shiny head in the video clip Beth posted. I did not sing on the actual recording, but I "lip-synced" for the video, which was taped months after the audio. Oddly enough, this video was taped on a steamy June 27, 2014. The boys had spent the entire morning at the Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, having performed two tremendously difficult (but nonetheless brilliantly sung) world premieres at the closing ceremonies of the American Guild of Organists national convention, then hopped on a bus, swapped out their black cassocks for red, and arrived at St. Paul's Harvard Square for a 12:30 taping. It was rather surreal to see the church all decked out for Christmas, with candelabras galore, on such a hot summer day! Since a few of the gentlemen who sang on the original recording were unavailable for the video shoot, I was asked to be a stand-in so that there would be a proper number of warm bodies on screen. My first lip-syncing gig! Milli Vanilli, eat your heart out.
  • FYI - the links in your review don't work.
  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 8,296
    Fixed. When posting here, if you show a URL, the forum software will automatically make it a link. You don't have to *make* it into one.
  • Michael --

    Thank you for your review and write-up on the boys choir at St. Paul's. The video is very nostalgic for me, as I was a member of the men's schola under Dr. Marier from 1976 until his retirement from 1986. I plan to order a CD of their new recording. However, the video makes no mention of the founder/director of the choir school. Only that it opened in 1963. There is one quick pic of Dr. Marier with the boys at Symphony Hall. No mention of Dr. Marier at all, as if the school opened and progressed on its own until John Robinson arrived. The school, his hymnal(s) and teaching Ward/chant classes were his life's work. What he was producing with talented boys and quality liturgy and music at St. Paul's was unprecedented anywhere else in the Boston Archdiocese for more than 25 yrs.

    However, I'm pleased to see that Mr. Robinson is now carrying the torch for the choir school and will continue with its progress and continue with Dr. Marier's vision for a Catholic choir school for boys. It appears he's doing wonderful things with them. If I should make a trip to Boston again, I plan to hear them at Mass at St. Paul's.

    Best wishes for a Merry Christmas and a prosperous and Happy New Year.

    Dan Ahlin
    Thanked by 1RPBurke
  • Dan,

    Good to hear from you even if indirectly by blog post! Mary Lou & I were just reminiscing a few days ago about our get-togethers at Barbara's on Rangeley St. in Dorchester.

    Much has changed at St. Paul's since your time, some for the better. Foremost, the school no longer depends on the old Catholic school network as a feeder system so the marketing has gotten more aggressive and sophisticated. My regret is that John Robinson could have, in my opinion, achieved what he wanted without abandoning the traditions you and I associate with Marier (big ones like the psalter and hymnody and little fun ones like the Christmas concert fanfare based on the choir school's phone number).

    Now if you want to want to really get riled we can talk about what has transpired at Arch Street. Those Marier hymnals stored in the loft have surely been trashed. The choir has morphed into the Arch Street Band!
  • Randolph --

    Thanks for updates at St. Paul's. I see the school is now referred to as "St. Paul Choir School". Does that mean the Boston Archdiocese is no longer providing some funding as in the past? From the videos I've seen at the choir school, John Robinson seems to be doing a fine job with the choir. Interesting too, that he uses the old choir loft for recording and performances. T.M. rarely used it, unless he was looking for an "antiphonal effect" by splitting the choir there and in the sanctuary.

    I am sorry though that Robinson isn't using the Ward Method with the boys. It provided a pure, crystal clear beautiful sound without the "reedy" sound he seems to be getting from the boys. But those things are "small potatoes" in the larger scheme of things I guess. At least the choir school tradition seems to be in place once again under his direction and giving quality performances at Mass and recordings. He clearly loves what he is doing. I hope he continues to use HSPC to the fullest degree he can. It was, in addition to the choir school, Ted's pride and joy.

    As for the "Arch St. Band" at St. Anthony's, the hymnal was disposed of shortly after I left. Ted, Mike Casey (my cantor, and choir school grad) and I were responsible for installing the hymnal at Arch St. in 1984. It was a proud time for me. And people who came to Arch St. for our music came for convenience, true, but some came because the music in their own parishes was "tepid" at best, and they wanted to hear and sing quality music. Luckily, the hymnal was in place there for 8-10 yrs. before the "changes" came with a new rector who wanted to, in his words, "blow the roof off the shrine" with his musical ideas---which DIDN'T include HSPC. Need I say more?

    I was also proud to have spearheaded the"breeding" of the 14-rank Wicks in the gallery with a new 3 manual digital Allen in the sanctuary. The Wicks console was removed. The acoustics in the room worked very well with the 2 combined organs. Both Jim Swist and Greg Materos (Allen) worked well together to complete the project. Of course, this work was completed a few mos. before I left there and so I got to play it very little before I departed. It's my understanding now that the new organ is never used, and may have been removed as well. In any case, the rector who was responsible for the "demise" of sacred music at Arch St. is gone after creating a "sacred music blitz", but his successor seems to keep the "Arch St. Band" at "double forte" in the 2nd floor chapel. :( So, I'm assuming the "roof" at Arch St. is still missing?!?! My years there and at St. Paul's are the fondest memories I have in church music.

    Hope the New Year finds you well. Where are you d.m. these days. The music at the Catholic churches here in Lincoln (boasting to be the most conservative diocese in the country) is tepid at best. Hence, I'm singing in a fine Episcopal church choir downtown, near the University. The choir loves chant and the Renaissance repertoire. But we also sing works of Britten, Howells, Near, Matthews, Titcomb, etc. Tomorrow (Baptism of the Lord) we'll sing "Jubilate Deo" -- B. Britten.

    Look forward to chatting whenever you have a minute. My email: if you wish to chat there as well.

  • chonakchonak
    Posts: 8,296
    Perhaps the school changed its name because the term "Boston Archdiocesan (Anything)" hasn't been very prestigious in recent years.
  • Liam
    Posts: 4,046
    Not that either.
  • PhatFlute
    Posts: 219
    I did look it up. This places name confuses to me the heck. Almost near - schizophrenics.

    Will look up record tho. Maybe on the You-Tube. Is it just Olbash's opinion or is it worth a look ?