William Ferris, one of the city's musical stalwarts, completed his final composition only days before his death last week. "Eden Garden" for Chamber Ensemble and Singer was given its premiere Monday at the Arts Club by the contemporary chamber group CUBE, which commissioned the work in its ongoing effort to honor local composers without regard to stylistic preferences.
Ferris belonged squarely in the traditionalist camp. An apprentice in composition (and on the organ) principally with Leo Sowerby, Ferris wrote as if he'd rather not deal with the more radical notions of the 20th Century. Instead, he felt an aesthetic kinship with Poulenc, William Walton, Samuel Barber, and Ned Rorem, sharing their lyrical bent and elegant craftsmanship. Not surprisingly, as head of his eponymous chorale, he championed their music.
Echoes of Rorem, Gian Carlo Menotti and William Bolcom abound in the half-hour "Eden Garden," which Ferris called "a musical menagerie" in an acknowledgment of its loose structure and varied effects. The vocal sections, which alternate with purely instrumental ones, are set to biblical passages and the poetry of St. Patrick to illuminate the miracle of creation.
A church musician for most of his 63 years, Ferris obviously put his heart into this fervently eloquent stretch of music that owes much to the English liturgical literature. And its vocal lines are endowed with gorgeous quavery lilts as if sung by a supplicant. Too bad that CUBE's performance, only fitfully brilliant, did not bring forth its full potential.
The ensemble of eight instrumentalists, under the gentle guidance of Philip Morehead, conscientiously backed up baritone Dan McDaniel and tore through the "Dance" episode with admirable elan. Some of the solos were exceptional, especially cellist Elizabeth Start and oboist Patricia Morehead.
McDaniel, alas, was not up to the task. His voice sounded a bit hoarse though he gamely tried to project ardor. He tripped in the "Ode to Joy"-like finale necessitating a retake. Despite blemishes, one could sense that Ferris' fecund career is aptly capped by a sincere benediction on the creative process.
The concert's three other pieces showcased the trio of Dimitris Marinos (mandolin), Paul Bowman (guitar) and Alison Attar (harp). In Robert Lombardo's valentine to the frescoes of Pompeii, "Affreschicaldi," the three accompanied mezzo-soprano Julia Bentley's singing of poems by Kathleen Lombardo. It's a lovely work filled with caressing tremolos and excited plucks.
Craig First's "Contrapuntal Variations" for mandolin and prerecorded mandolin might have been a dry exercise in counterpoint if not for Marinos. M. William Karlins' "Kindred Spirits," written for the trio, exploits the instruments' similarities and slight differences.
"Eden Garden" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Thursday in First Congregational Church of La Grange, 100 S. Sixth Ave.
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