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Jameson Marvin

The legendary Holden Choirs conductor steps down after 32 years

Jameson Marvin, Director of Choral Activities for the Holden Choirs for the past three decades, conducts a rehearsal of Harvard’s co-ed Collegium Musicum with characteristically quirky zeal.
Jameson Marvin, Director of Choral Activities for the Holden Choirs for the past three decades, conducts a rehearsal of Harvard’s co-ed Collegium Musicum with characteristically quirky zeal.
By Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey, Crimson Staff Writer

At 8:30 on a Tuesday night, all is quiet in Memorial Hall. The tourists who spend their days shuffling around outside the exit to Annenberg Hall have shuttered their cameras, rubbed the John Harvard statue once more for good luck, and gone back to their hotels. Inside Sanders Theatre, however, all is surreal chaos. A wiry, white-haired man sings a complex passage of music without any consonant sounds while encouraging the chorus that encircles him to enunciate more. When he finishes the passage, the entire chorus starts whistling, and he grins sheepishly before counting them off.

As they sing, he rises on his toes, bends his knees, and rocks back and forth, his mouth moving in time to the music and his feet quivering across the platform. One might easily think the entire sound of the 65-man Glee Club is emanating from Jameson N. Marvin, the Holden Choirs’ Director of Choral Activities and a Senior Lecturer on Music.

This June, after 32 years of conducting at Harvard, he’s stepping down.

A PERFECT SOUND

Marvin, affectionately known as “Jim” by his students, is the latest of five conductors for the Holden Choirs—composed of the Glee Club, Collegium Musicum, and the Radcliffe Choral Society—since the Glee Club was founded in 1858. Marvin holds one of the most prominent choral conducting jobs in the country: the Glee Club and the Radcliffe Choral Society are, respectively, the oldest men’s and the oldest women’s collegiate chorus in the country.

“Jim has elevated all three groups to a level of national recognition that I don’t think any of them really had,” says Adam M. Gann ’12, the Glee Club Historian. “Jim’s legacy, the thing that Jim is particularly good at, is making the three different sounds—Men’s, Women’s and Mixed—sound particularly good, whereas most conductors will only have experience with one or two of those types,” says Stacey R. Hanson ’10, Manager Emerita of the Radcliffe Choral Society. The level of excellence shared by all three of the choruses has been one of Marvin’s most significant achievements in his historic tenure.

“I wanted them to sound equal to each other so that there was this wonderful community of kindred spirits,” says Marvin, sitting in his Paine Music Hall office crowded with posters from past performances, an upright piano, and a towering bookshelf stuffed with sheet music.

He taxes his students, pushing for a level of excellence that some professional choirs never attain. In 2003, for a celebration of Marvin’s 25th year in his position, the choruses sang Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis.” The performance required an unprecedented amount of dedication, but elicited an effusive wave of praise from its audience. It received a glowing review from the Boston Globe: “Beethoven’s bursts of scurrying fast-tempo polyphony were as sure, swift, and unimpeded as mere human agency could make them,” wrote correspondent Richard Buell, “additionally enlivened by the performers’ awareness (visible in their faces and demeanor) that they were indeed daring the impossible.” Marvin was praised throughout the piece. “It was the kind of conducting that has a lot of ‘there’ to it but somehow disappears, egolessly, into the music,” Buell added.

Marvin, however, credits most of the success of the choirs to the students’ own talents: “I think it’s that kernel [of musical knowledge] that excites students, because if they know they can really grab it and own it,” he explains. “I’ve taught the students in each of these choirs how to hear and therefore how to take the responsibility of how to fix.”

Even to the untrained ear, the sound of the Holden Choirs is impressively unified and unique. Marvin is renowned for his unparalleled talent in choral direction, and he is also credited with the creation of a particular ‘Harvard sound.’ Marvin’s long-time friend Kevin C. Leong, the Associate Conductor of the Holden Choirs, sees this musical achievement as one of Marvin’s greatest.

“It’s basically a total refinement of all components of what you hear. Everything is aligned and there’s attention given to alignment of vowel and perfect tuning and balance,” Leong says. He adds, “Jim teaches his students how to listen and how to adjust what they sing according to what they hear in order to create the perfect sound. It’s very compelling. It’s a beautiful sound and it’s one of his priorities to create that sound, sounds that people don’t hear every day. It’s the difference between a chorus and a bunch of people singing together.”

In essence, Jim is a musician who has the ability both to play and to sculpt his instrument, and the students in the choirs are the most essential part of that instrument.

“One of the things he teaches is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” says Isabel W. Draves ’91, a Collegium alumna and Chair of the Jim Marvin Retirement Celebration Weekend. “It’s something that’s really useful at Harvard; it’s really about the team effort and not the individual at all.”

MARVINCUES

“They were the Holden Choirs before, but it was more an internal name that was used. It was not, as it is now, an external name,” Marvin says. The Choirs were initially known as the Holden Choirs simply because the groups all used the Holden Chapel as a rehearsal space. Under the exuberant direction of Marvin, however, the Holden Choirs have become a cohesive entity within the school.

“Holden is a real community of singers, so I’m not just friends with people in Collegium,” says Allison S. Brandt ’10, President of Collegium Musicum, “I’m friends with everyone else.”

Marvin has been successful in creating the immeasurably close community of the Holden choruses due to his sincere interest in developing close relationships with his students. “He genuinely cares about the students in each of the three groups,” says Kristina R. Yee ’10, the Radcliffe Choral Society Historian. “I think that Jim is a very fatherly conductor figure.”

Students across the three choruses fondly discuss the ‘Marvincues’ he holds at his house three times annually. These feature the infamous ‘Marvinburgers,’ a burger so thick that it’s charred on the outside and rare on the inside, and, during the ‘Christmascues’ of yore, Marvin’s festive eggnog.

The stories from the Christmascues especially are so heartwarming that they would be a welcome addition to anyone’s holiday experience. Piling into school buses on a cold winter’s night, the members of all three Holden Choirs drive the half-hour it takes to reach Marvin’s house in Lexington, Massachusetts. There, they bask in the glow of the fire that Marvin tends (carefully, as if it were the fourth Holden chorus), drink eggnog, and converse with his oft-referenced wife Polly.

After an initial period of comfortable conversation, the three choruses, totaling over 100 students, crowd around Marvin’s piano to practice Christmas carols. Then they take to the streets of Lexington, caroling for the neighbors and hurling snowballs at each other, weather permitting.

For many, the Holden Choirs become the dominant aspect of their social scene; they provide lifelong friends and constitute the most memorable part of college. Some alumni joke about the fact that they came to several choral reunions before attending a class reunion. “My parents would accuse me of concentrating in Glee Club, minoring in the band and occasionally taking classes,” said nostalgic alumnus David F. Jackson ’82.

This tight-knit community only strengthens in the intense rehearsals for which Marvin is known. Even the lengthiest rehearsals are rendered bearable by Marvin’s fierce energy and ridiculous teaching-phrases, known as Marvinisms. The singers collect these bizarre phrases in their music, send them out over email chains, and eventually create year-end books with pages devoted to them.

“These usually don’t get explained ever,” laughs Molly C. Storer ’11, manager of the Radcliffe Choral Society. “Sometimes they get explained at the beginning of the year but he uses them so often that it gets to the point where he could say something that seems totally random to anyone outside of the [Holden Choirs], but we know exactly what it means and respond to it.” When a chorus isn’t grasping a passage, Marvin shouts, waves his arms and utters seemingly incomprehensible torrents of nonsense. This seems slightly ridiculous until the chorus tries the passage again—and performs it infinitely better than they did before Marvin’s outburst.

“Every rehearsal, I’m constantly kept on my toes—there’s nothing boring about rehearsals with Jim,” says Brandt. “He’s loud, and crazy, and funny, and energetic, and sometimes scary, but just to get us to do something that would be outside our comfort zone to make the music better.”

A commonly cited Marvinism is his advice for singers trying to hit a high note: “You’re either pregnant or you’re not.” He also frequently refers to “Santa’s bag of psychological problems,” the baggage that a distraught Santa carries around, which prevents him from effectively carrying out his job. He encourages students to leave their bags on the roof.

LEGEND AND LEGACY

Tales of Marvin have been passed down from students too, and they form the subtext on which his unusual rehearsal demeanor sits. Storer passed on a popular story from a Radcliffe Choral Society tour, which featured a karaoke bar in Tennessee, an RCS rendition of “I Will Survive,” and—most importantly—Marvin’s unbuttoning his collared shirt, unveiling his neon pink t-shirt, and swinging the former over his head as he danced.

These stories are so deeply ingrained in the institutional memory of the Holden Choirs—a  memory that stretches back further than the Crimson’s archives—that whenever a Holden singer discusses anything that the choruses have done, they’ll use the first person plural. As a result, 19-year-old students with laptops in bag and cell phones in pocket develop a verbal tic of referring to high jinks they enjoyed during the late nineteenth century or early 1970s.

In many ways, the history of the Holden Choirs mirrors that of Harvard. From the creation of Collegium, which coincided with the merger with Radcliffe, to the lyrics’ change in gender in Charles Gounoud’s “Domine Salvum Fac”—the song that is traditionally sung at Harvard Presidential Installations—to accommodate current President Drew Gilpin Faust, the Choirs have participated actively in Harvard history.

These deep historical roots help produce the remarkable alumni culture surrounding the choruses. The alumni of the groups are extremely committed; almost five hundred alumni of Marvin’s Holden Choirs plan to return for the Holden Reunion Weekend. The weekend will kick off on Friday with a joint performance of all three Holden Choirs called “A Celebration of the Career of Dr. Jameson Marvin.” The concert will feature the premiere of “Song of Awakening,” a piece commissioned from the composer Robert Kyr for the occasion.

Gann says Marvin creates common ground between current and former Holden Choirs participants. “When I talk to alumni, I know that we have this common background of having been a part of producing the same sound and that’s a pretty special historical connection,” he says. Draves voices a similar sentiment. “You meet these people and you’ve never seen them before in your life, but you instantly have something in common with them because you know so many of the same songs and when you sing something with someone you have an instant bond,” she says.

Marvin possesses a rare combination of natural leadership skills and musical dedication.  In his social and musical legacy, he has set a precedent that will not be easy to maintain. The college has organized a search committee to find a new director, but they have yet to reach a decision.

GRAZIOSO

Marvin has both perpetuated and altered the rich history of the Holden Choirs in his time here. Widely credited with the creation of the Pan-Holden community, and critically acclaimed for his unparalleled ability to bring the three distinct choruses to an equal skill level, Marvin has technical achievements and community-wide accomplishments sufficient to satisfy anyone’s criteria for a fulfilling career. Still, he doesn’t consider any of these accomplishments to be his greatest achievement—or his motivation for staying in the same position for 32 years.

At the end of a forty-five minute interview with Marvin, I am well aware that—despite his patience—I am making him terribly late for an important engagement. With feverish swipes at my laptop track pad, I scan through my unending list of questions for one that would grant me access to some greater truth about Marvin’s career. Flustered, I turn to him and ask simply, “What will you miss most?”

Without a second thought or a moment’s hesitation, Marvin, who opened the interview by describing himself as “verbose” and prone to “rattle on and on,” answers, “the students.”

—Staff writer Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey can be reached at bhafrey@college.harvard.edu.

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