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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Paul French

Gordon: You have an extremely busy weekly schedule with your multiple responsibilities as Music Director at Our Lady of Mount Carmel and Music Director of the William Ferris Chorale. When and where did you study music and what were some of the most memorable courses that you took?

Paul: My musical studies began quite late – with my initial piano lessons taking place in college. I studied composition at St. John’s University in Collegeville, MN, and there grew to love the Benedictine Liturgy of the Hours. A fortuitous article about composer, organist, conductor William Ferris in the Chicago Sun-Times caught my attention back in 1983, and I reached out to Mr. Ferris asking that he take me on as a private student. It was Ferris, more than any single person, who modeled for me an adult male working as a professional musician in the Church and having a dual life as a composer and conductor. In addition I did graduate work at Northwestern University and at the Pontificio Istituto di Musica Sacra  in Rome, but it was Ferris who has been the greatest influence.

Gordon: You are also a prolific composer with more than 200 instrumental and choral compositions. On the average. how many hours each month do you devote to composing?

Paul: On average – none. Between my work at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church and the direction of our five liturgical choirs and cantors and instrumentalists, and my position as Music Director of the William Ferris Chorale, my commitment to the marvelous American Federation Pueri Cantores, my association with the publishing house World Library Publications recording a dozen or so choral CDs each year, and as a husband and a father (I have two sons) - there is little or no time left over for creative work. When something needs to be composed for church, I do it as efficiently as possible, but the luxury of regular time for composition simply does not exist

Gordon: Your composition A Prayer of Saint Patrick was featured at Pope Francis' Mass at Madison Square Garden on his 2015 visit to the United States  When and by whom were you notified of this great honor?

Paul: The piece was commissioned for the installation of a new organ in Brighton, MI back in 2004. After sending the piece off to fulfill the commission it sat dormant on my shelf for nearly a decade. About two years ago I had dusted the thing off and had our Morning Choir sing it, and at about the same time I was a guest on a radio program hosted by Dr. Jennifer Pascual, the music director at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. She heard the Mt. Carmel choir’s performance of the piece and asked for a copy of the score. She liked it and shortly thereafter conducted a performance with her church choir, then used it again for the funeral of Cardinal Edward Egan, and just recently for a third time during the Papal Evening Prayer hosted at St. Patrick’s Cathedral during Pope Francis’ visit to New York City. The piece was recently picked up for publication so perhaps now it can reach a wider audience.   

In addition to the NYC liturgy, I was honored to have two additional pieces of mine performed at the Washington D.C. liturgies. One, used as the recessional of the Mass,

was my setting of GROSSER GOTT or Holy God, We Praise Thy Name, which was originally composed for the 125th anniversary of St. Michael’s Church in Old Town here in Chicago. That piece acknowledged the German founders of the parish church and so the first verse was set in German. This piece was also used at a papal liturgy in 2008 when Pope Benedict XVI visited Washington DC. 

My greatest honor, however, was to have been commissioned to composer Fanfares and Alleluias for the 2015 Papal Mass in DC.

The extended fanfare and Gospel Acclamation was true “outdoor” music and was scored for 13 brass payers, several percussionists, organ and choir. The commission was initiated about a year in advance of the date of the Mass, and all the particulars as to the length of the procession and the actual amount of music needed were not yet set in stone. I wrote about three times more music for that moment than was actually used, but it still was a great delight to have been asked to compose for such a noble occasion.

Gordon: One of my favorites of your compositions is the glorious Nunc Tempus.

which you composed for the Willows Academy Chamber Choir.  For what other organizations have you composed and what were the titles of these works?

Paul: The majority of my compositions are in response to needs that are quite local – here at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church.  

Other commissions of late have been for the Heritage Chorale  of Oak Park, IL – a setting of Psalm 121 entitled I Lift My Eyes

For the Irish Heritage Singers of Chicago this past spring I set two poems of the great Irish writer William Butler Yeats.      

Another recent departure from the realm of the sacred was a set of seven pieces for  tenor and baritone (both solo and duet) entitled Riddles and Silly Rhymes, composed for two marvelous friends and vocal artists in the Twin Cities. How often in one’s creative life can one set the phrase – “Shop Ikea in Judea, Dorothea  Another recent commission was for the 100th anniversary of Holy Redeemer Church  in College Park, Maryland and their terrifically talented music director, Maria Balducci, entitled “Raise Your Voices, Lift Your Hearts”. The piece is scored for two trumpets, a large handbell choir, organ and chorus and is a rather noisy setting of Psalm 19.  

Gordon: Could you provide an overview of the various choirs that you direct at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel and how the music for each choir is chosen

Paul: We have a choir for everyone who wishes to sing – no matter what the age. Two adult choirs, the Morning Choir (which sings a broadly classical repertoire) and the Contemporary Choir (which sings, as its name implies) a piano based repertoire. Our Juniors (the training choir for the Trebles) are in 1-3 grades, our marvelous Treble Choir is for chorister in grades 4-8 and our new High School Schola is for the Treble choir graduates and all other parish youth who love to sing. Music for each choir is carefully chosen with attention to the liturgical season, the scripture of the day, the ability of the choir with the limitations of the number of rehearsal hours, etc. 

Gordon: I have been attending performance of The William Ferris Chorale for nearly forty years and each concert has been a memorable treasure. Could you provide an overview of you association with and current directorship of The William Ferris Chorale?

Paul: Early on in my lessons with Bill Ferris he entrusted me with the opportunity to do some conducting with the WFC, back in the mid-1980s. What a gift those experiences were to me, and ones that I will never forget. After Ferris’ untimely death of a heart attack while conducting the Verdi Requiem in May of 2000, John Vorrasi, (the WFC’s co-founder) made the decision to continue the Choral and his and Ferris’ shared vision for the choral arts. For the next 5 years a variety of guest conductors were invited to lead the Chorale in rehearsals and concerts. Those conductors included the world renowned David Willcocks and Peter Schickele (aka P. D. Q. Bach). I was invited to conduct one concert on their series each year. Eleven years ago John Vorrasi asked that I take over the musical direction of the ensemble and that began our permanent association those many years back.  

Gordon: Could you describe the process by which compositions are chosen for your concerts?

Paul: Perhaps it might be easier to talk about this coming season in particular. Knowing that it had been some time since we collaborated with a harpist, and also know that finding a harpist who could commit to five concerts in the month of December – the single month of the year that harpists do the majority of their concert work – I began the process three years back of reaching out to the two major local harp teachers (one who plays with the CSO and the other who plays with the Lyric Opera) and asked if they could recommend a young harpist who would be good for a collaboration of this magnitude. The name of Keryn Wouden surfaced and after conversations, negotiations and an audition, we had our harpist. The December programs are built around a marvelous work for harp and choir by the American composer, Frank Ferko, which is a re-setting of familiar Christmas texts to which new melodies were created and crafted.

The work, entitled A Festival of Carols will surely delight our audiences with its thrilling and technical harp work and fast rhythms. For our March concerts we looked to share the “stage” and partner again with the marvelous High School girls ensemble from the western suburbs who are the Spirito! Singers. Their visionary director, Molly Lindberg, has grown this organization dramatically in the past 8-9 years, and our last collaboration, some 6 years back singing the Faure Requiem was a thrill for both the professionals of the Ferris Chorale and the young ladies of the Spirito! Singers. The experience singing side-by-side with a professional choral group provides a lasting and invaluable experience for the younger voices, whether or not they go on to professional vocal careers of their own or not. We will sing a concert of the scared music of Francis Poulenc and Arvo Part. Our final concert is perhaps as true to the mission of the WFC as it get. We will welcome Washington DC based composer, Dr. Leo Nestor, for a concert devoted entirely to his sacred choral works. Though Dr. Nestor’s name is not widely known out of the church music circles, his compositions are so beautifully and subtly crafted that singers and audiences will delight in the music making.    

Gordon You mentioned your work with the American Federation Pueri Cantores. Could you provide our readers with an overview of the organization and your work with them?

Paul: The international Federation Pueri Cantores, is the official student choral organization in the Catholic Church, and is based in Rome Italy. Some 65 members of the parish (choristers and parents will be traveling to Rome Italy after Christmas this year as part of a Pueri Cantores pilgrimage to sing at a Papal Liturgy on New Year’s Day 2016. It has been my pleasure to be connected to the American Federation for well over a decade. The association with the AFPC is on two fronts - I conduct between 2-6 regional choral festivals for them around the country each year, and assist a team of conductors in choosing the repertoire that will be sung at the various festivals. Pueri Cantores in the US has also been collaborating with the NCEA to come up with repertoire guidelines for school liturgies – an important step in moving our Catholic schools toward a more appropriated and substantial repertoire or hymns, psalms and acclamations. The other side of the Pueri coin is that our Treble Choir attends our regional festivals and spends the entire year preparing the repertoire for the festival, which, of course, is sung in our parish liturgies. I am fond of saying that AFPC is a gentle ruse – the organization uses sacred music to catechize these young choristers and helps them develop a love for the Church and her rituals and the beauty of chant and polyphony.   

Gordon: Thank you for taking the time from your exceptionally busy schedule for this interview and giving our readers a greater insight into your talents and commitment to how George Rachiotis described music as " the greatest creation of man, which touches the soul and also helps man to sympathetically manifest unspoken desire and humanity in him. "


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