During the summer months, BU Today is revisiting some of the past year’s favorite stories. This week, we feature music.
After an absence from the commercial marketplace of nearly two decades, the Marsh Chapel Choir has recorded not one, but two new CDs.
The first, Before the Wresting Tides, was released in October and features three concertos by Boston composer Jeremy Gill, with the choir performing the title track. But it’s the second, Most Sacred Body: A Cantata for Good Friday, released last week, that Marsh music director Scott Allen Jarrett (CFA’99,’08) calls “a real opportunity to show off the quality” of the choir.
Marsh Chapel commissioned that oratorio by Chicago composer James Kallembach and premiered it on Good Friday in 2016. That fall, the singers recorded the work before a live audience in the chapel.
“When I realized the quality of the piece…and how much the choir adored it—they just fell in love with the piece—I thought this is a chance for us to actually go for it and make a commercial recording,” Jarrett says. “Now, when people do this piece…it’s our recording that they will listen to, to learn how the song goes.”
The album was released by Gothic Records, the Grammy-winning label known for choral recordings.
The oratorio’s text draws on 17th-century cantatas about the body of the crucified Jesus as well as Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. “The energy that you get from live performance is different than sort of the artificial nature of being in a studio,” says Jarrett. “You can go for degrees of accuracy in a studio, but it sometimes doesn’t have the character and the spirit of live performance.”
Marsh’s choir performs at the chapel’s Sunday service, which is broadcast over WBUR (90.9 FM), the University’s National Public Radio station, and on the internet, “so we’re not afraid of the microphone,” Jarrett says. Still, the group hadn’t released an album in so many years because its core mission is performing for the chapel, not cutting CDs, and because of the cost of a commercial recording.
“I’ll call you the day that we get a royalty check. There’s no money in this,” says Jarrett. “We view this as an investment that we want when [BU President] Bob Brown asks us to think of what is distinctive, better, and best about Boston University. We feel like what we have here is a very special and distinctive music program.”
From a business perspective, much of the choir’s performances would be redundant in the marketplace, he says. “The world doesn’t need another recording of Bach’s St. John Passion by a collegiate ensemble.”
Unlike Most Sacred Body, Before the Wresting Tides was not recorded before a live audience. The choir recorded its portion of the album at Boston’s Jordan Hall last February. “It was very scary, because it was recorded in one three-hour session,” Jarrett recalls. “The rehearsal was the recording session. I was thinking, will we be in tune? Will we be able to come in on the right notes? It’s three hours, and if you can’t get it done in three hours, then you’ve just wasted thousands and thousands of dollars.
“The pressure was on us to be spot-on from the downbeat,” he says. “And we were. Our guys just absolutely nailed it.”
Before the Wresting Tides was released by BMOP/sound, the label of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, an orchestra that performs and records new music. BMOP conductor Gil Rose knows Jarrett and recruited the choir for the CD.
For that recording, Rose conducted the choir, while Jarrett wielded the baton on Most Sacred Body.