Jim Marvin, who has led Harvard’s choral program for more than 30 years with a passion for making music and friends, will end his time at the University on a high note when he retires at the end of the year.

Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer

Campus & Community

Ending on a high note

5 min read

Choral director finishes his 30-year run with — what else — a weekend of music

A few minutes in Jameson “Jim” Marvin’s presence, and it’s easy to guess his line of work. The man likes to use his hands.

It’s a useful trait for a music conductor.

But Marvin, who has led Harvard’s choral program for more than 30 years with a passion for making music and friends, will end his time at the University on a high note when he retires at the end of the year.

“The choral program is in great shape, and I am in pretty good shape, so I think it’s time to go.”

To get a true sense of Marvin’s impressive Harvard career, just glance at the ceiling of his lofty Paine Hall office. Plastered high overhead and on every inch of available wall are the colorful posters of the countless concerts he has conducted since taking over as Harvard’s director of choral activities and senior lecturer on music.

The California native was tapped to head the choral program in 1978, beating out 160 applicants after responding to an ad in The New York Times.

“It was so exciting. I loved it,” Marvin said of the intense interview and audition process led by students that included brief turns conducting the all men’s Harvard Glee Club, the women’s Radcliffe Choral Society, and the mixed voice Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum, three of the four groups that make up Harvard’s Holden Choirs.

During his tenure, the outgoing Marvin has led all three groups, created another large community and student choir, developed a training course for young singers, added assistant choral director positions for each choir, taught classes in beginning and advanced conducting and masterpieces of choral literature, and performed everything from Bach and Beethoven to Barber and Bernstein.

“This is a really, really wonderful, full program, and I am really proud of it. And I am very, very lucky to have been here to have helped shape it.”

Shaping and perfecting the music requires hard work, said Marvin, who admits to being “strongly tenacious” at times in order to get the best sound possible. But the reward, he said, is always worth the effort.

“Ultimately, through a wonderful rehearsal or performance that brings a piece to an extremely high level, the students may be inspired, and can experience an enriching quality of transcendence … [which] touches them deeply.”

His students laud his commitment to excellence, passion for music, and dedication to his singers.

“He really wanted to help us perform wonderful music, but also really truly enjoy our experience,” said Cara Ferrentino ’08, Harvard Law School’s sustainability coordinator, who sang all four years with the Radcliffe Choral Society.

Marvin grew and developed the triumvirate of choruses for accomplished singers and also founded two programs to help singers with less vocal experience, but an equal love of song.

In 1979 he created the Harvard-Radcliffe Chorus, a choir that combines students, faculty, and staff members, as well as community residents. The 180-voice choir helps younger singers to get “a little extra experience and guidance.” He also created the “Choir-in-Progress” course, which helps beginning singers develop voice and music techniques.

Marvin is as gracious as he is gregarious. He is quick to praise former associate director Beverly Taylor with helping to develop Harvard’s choral program. He calls his current associate conductor Kevin Leong his “right-hand man,” and credits the Office for the Arts for its ongoing support.

“So many people helped make the program what it is today.”

His own love of music developed early. As a boy he learned to sing from his grandparents. Later he took piano lessons and recalled sneaking down to the piano in the early morning hours to practice music that left him “in a swoon of a mood.” In high school he sang in a church choir, where he was introduced to the sacred songs that would lead him to his love of Renaissance music.

When he was tapped to lead a group of his fraternity brothers in an annual singing competition while at the University of California, Santa Barbara, his conducting die was cast.

“I realized I liked to stand in front of people and lead. But the fact that I could hear and help them fix and get better and better is what began to convince me that I really could do this.”

Marvin went on to receive his master’s in choral conducting from Stanford University and his doctorate in choral music from the University of Illinois. He was assistant professor of music at Vassar College before arriving at Harvard.

He has toured yearly with the Harvard choirs, enjoying singing trips to countries like New Zealand, Australia, China, and Brazil. He laughed, recalling a ride on the back of an ostrich on a trip to South Africa, and smiled proudly in remembering a performance with the choirs at New York’s famed Lincoln Center. Marvin’s choirs are frequently selected to perform at the regional and national conference of the American Choral Directors Association.

“I can’t imagine the Holden Choirs without him,” said Jack Megan, director of the Office for the Arts,” but I believe they will thrive because of what Jim has accomplished.”

Marvin’s Harvard tenure has been as much about the people as it has been about performance. He is most proud of having created a community of “kindred spirits” who share his love and enthusiasm for music and friendship.

Paying tribute

In tribute to Marvin, more than 400 alumni from the choirs will return to campus this weekend (April 30 to May 2) to celebrate his long career with a series of receptions and group sings, and a special tribute concert at Sanders Theatre.