St. Paul's Choir School's latest album evokes peace of heaven

CAMBRIDGE -- The ethereal voices of the boy choristers at St. Paul's Choir School are reaching beyond the walls of St. Paul's Church with the release of their latest album, "Gabriel Faure Requiem and Other Masterworks."

While the choir sings at Mass on a daily basis, "a CD recording allows us to get this out to many more people who are hungering for this kind of beauty and art," St. Paul's Choir Director James Kennerley said in a Feb. 28 interview.

The choristers in grades six through eight, along with some graduates and The Choir of St. Paul's, recorded the album at the end of last summer, with Grammy-winner Brad Michel as producer. Michel had previously helmed the choir's recording of their last album, "Ave Maria," in 2017.

"It's a pleasure to experience the youthful energy and raw talent of these boys," he said in a press release.

Before they could even begin practicing, they had to choose the music for the album, which, Kennerley said, needed to represent them as a choir and an institution.

"We choose music that is special to us, sometimes unique to us," he explained.

The boys' choir usually sings in a gallery, out of sight of the congregation, giving an impression like angels singing in heaven.

"That's how we think of our choristers, as giving the sonic sense of heaven on earth," Kennerley said.

He said the idea of a requiem, a musical composition for a funeral, came from current events like the war in Ukraine. They drew on the requiem's theme of "lux perpetua," or "perpetual light," which he said is "symbolic of the everlasting peace in Heaven."

"We thought that music about peace, and about healing, would be a really nice offering to share with the world," he said.

In addition to works by Gabriel Faure, a late Romantic era composer, the album also includes music that Kennerley composed specifically for the boys' choir. His pieces are settings of "O Salutaris hostia" and "O sacrum convivium," as well as the four-part "Missa Sanctae Mariae Virginae." He also included a couple of plainchant songs, and made a new arrangement of Faure's "Cantique de Jean Racine," the final track on the album.

Foure originally wrote his Requiem for a men and boys' choir at his church, La Madeleine in Paris. Kennerley said that by using a men and boys' choir, they thought they would be "going back to the sound world that Foure himself would have known, so we could really go to the heart of the music."

There were some differences, though. The requiem was written for a large orchestra, but Kennerley created an arrangement for a smaller orchestra to create "a more intimate sound."

For this recording, they worked with instrumentalists from the Boston Symphony, which Kennerley said resulted in a "sort of cross-fertilizing of ideas."

"Our boys were really excited to work with the players, and the players were really excited to work with the choir. And so, when the two of them got together and actually started doing that, they were really, really thrilled. So, the end result was fantastic, and that was thanks, in no small part, to those amazing players," he said.

He compared practicing for the album to training for the Olympics, "putting a lot of effort and time into perfecting what we do." He said that feeling can continue for months after such a project is completed.

The album was officially released on Jan. 20. At the time, the choir was on tour in Washington, D.C., so they were able to share the news with people they met as they traveled and performed.

Kennerley said one person told him that the album was the most beautiful thing they had ever heard.

"The fact that people so far have been giving such rave reviews is really testament to these boys and their professionalism, which is what we aim to teach them, but sometimes you only get that when you actually do a project like this that reminds you how important everything is that they're training for," he said.

For him, he said, the most meaningful part of the experience has been when students expressed "how amazing" it was for them. Some of the older students have written about the project for their high school entrance essays.

"The experience that that gave them, and that they'll carry for the rest of their lives, is just extraordinary," Kennerley said.