Campus & Community

A choir of one’s own

6 min read

Jones readies Christmas Service

Interim organist and choirmaster Edward Elwyn Jones started playing the organ at age 12. (Photos by Stu Rosner)

Things happen to Edward Elwyn Jones in the nick of time. Consider. In 1998, he was in his final year at Cambridge University, when he was invited to Harvard’s Memorial Church, first as Organ Scholar, and then to stay on for an additional year as assistant organist to University Organist and Choirmaster Murray Forbes Somerville. In 2002, just as Jones was finishing further music studies in New York, he was asked to take over as interim organist and choirmaster until the search for a permanent replacement for Somerville, who left Harvard for a position in Nashville, Tenn., was completed.

The Memorial Church’s 94th annual Carols Services will be held on Sunday (Dec. 14) at 5 p.m. and Monday (Dec. 15) at 8 p.m., in the sanctuary of the Memorial Church, Harvard Yard. The service is free and open to the public. After each service an offering will be collected for a local charity. Members of the Harvard community are especially invited to attend the Sunday service.

“Worrying but exciting,” is how Jones views the oscillations of his career. “Things have always fallen into place at the very last minute, which is scary but great.”

So far Jones has had to conflate any worrying he’s done with working, since he’s never had much leisure to indulge in nail-biting binges. While obtaining a master’s degree in orchestral conducting at Mannes College of Music in New York, in his spare time he was assistant organist at Christ Church United Methodist on Park Avenue. He’s spent his last two summers in Reykjavik, Iceland, where a warm reception to the two operas he’s conducted there has compensated for his year-round sun deprivation.

Jones’ schedule since September has been rigorous. In addition to twice-weekly rehearsals for the Sunday Service choir and daily rehearsals with the Choral Singers who sing at Morning Prayer, he’s had to find time to devise the program and rehearse the choir for one of the most popular annual events on the Harvard calendar, the Christmas Carols Services, this year on Dec. 14 and 15. Only days away now, Jones’ characteristic blend of affable sangfroid shows no signs of coming undone.

Jones: ‘I can only praise the choir … they are sounding very beautiful.’

“I can only praise the choir,” he says, shifting the emphasis. “It probably hasn’t been an easy year for them with the transition between Murray and myself, but they’ve reacted very well and are sounding very beautiful.”

Hailing from Wales, a talent for music might seem axiomatic, but surprisingly Edward Elwyn Jones was the first to exhibit a flair for music in his particular branch of the ubiquitous Jones tribe. It was a next-door neighbor who helped shaped the course of his career when she suggested Jones try out to be a chorister. Jones did indeed have what it took and went on to become head chorister at Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff. There he discovered he liked the sound of the organ and, at age 12, began to play it. Emmanuel College, Cambridge, beckoned next, and at age 18, while pursuing a degree in music, he began conducting the college choir.

“It was a great grounding. I had a lot of experience in church music but to have a choir of one’s own set me up for coming here,” says Jones, while pointing out that conducting is more than a matter of musical literacy and a desire for visibility. People skills and a healthy amount of humility are part of the profile.

“You need to convey not necessarily that your viewpoint is right, but that you have confidence in what you’re doing and can communicate what you’re trying to get at. You’re conducting anywhere from between 10 to 150 musicians, each with their own opinions on a piece and somehow you have to solidify these opinions into one. So it’s a fine balance. I try to achieve a relaxed atmosphere with the choir, which has worked well, still knowing that I mean business.”

This year’s Carol Service has been all about achieving a fine balance, too. To a young conductor the tradition-laden event (the liturgy for the first service held 94 years ago has survived virtually unchanged) might appear to offer an irresistible opportunity for innovation. Fortunately, Jones has found a middle path. At their weekly tea hour prior to rehearsals, choir members fizzed with enthusiasm both for their temporary choirmaster and for the upcoming Carol Service. “A diverse program, acknowledging music from different genres and times, and with a strong Harvard component,” was the collective opinion of choir members Michael Givey ’06, Mark Stanisz ’05, and Jonas Budris ’06, an applied mathematics major, who joined the choir this year.

“Certainly this is a time when people come together and tradition is expected,” says Jones, elaborating on his choices. “But for these things to stay alive, they have to have some new life injected into them, and with the contemporary music we’re doing that should happen. At Christmas you usually hear old Renaissance and medieval carols and the 20th century British sing-along carols. There are a couple of each of those, and some beautiful Congregational carols for everyone to sing as well. I’ve tried to fill in the gaps because there are a few hundred years where not much is done, so there’s a piece by Mendelssohn and by Tchaikovsky, and then also several contemporary American pieces.”

Harvard is well represented in the selection of contemporary pieces, with work by Harvard alumnus composer Daniel Pinkham and a work by Carson Cooman ’04, based on texts by American authors, which was commissioned by the Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes for the service.

“We’re lucky to have him,” says Jones of the 21-year-old composer. “Carson cares about what direction church music takes, and I think will be quite instrumental in shaping it in the future. He’s a senior, so he’ll be gone next year. This is a good chance to hear a world premiere.”

Next year, Edward Jones will be gone too, but for the moment he’s too busy to think about that, and besides, something always turns up.