Quire Cleveland welcomes conductor Jameson Marvin for Palestrina program

Jameson Marvin may be the merriest choral conductor you’ll ever meet. He jumps from topic to topic with nary a moment to breathe, chatting about everything from his 32 years as director of choral activities at Harvard University to conducting The Music Man to the modes he loves in Renaissance music.

The California native will have ample time to bask in Renaissance glory this weekend. He’s come to town to serve as guest conductor of Quire Cleveland in “From Rome to Cleveland: Palestrina at St. Peter’s,” a concert of music by 16th-century master Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina.

The program’s title has a double meaning: St. Peter’s is both the famous Late Renaissance church in the Vatican City and the historic church in downtown Cleveland where Quire Cleveland will perform Saturday.

Get Marvin started on things Renaissance — or any other style of music, for that matter — and the words spill forth. He began performing works from before the 17th century as an undergraduate at the University of California in Santa Barbara.

“Especially in the sacred music, I remember feeling this euphoric state singing it,” Marvin, who lives in Lexington, Mass., said the other day. “It was mesmerizing. It eventually became a kind of spiritual experience — transcendent, in some ways.”

Marvin, 71, revels in the polyphony — the layering of independent melodic lines — of Renaissance music and in the asymmetry that gives the music “a sense of neither here nor there until you get to the cadences.”

He becomes particularly animated hailing the various modes — different types of scales — that provide the music with distinctive expressive coloring.

“I’m really interested in emotion in music,” Marvin said. “I’m very emotional. I’m interested in projecting that inherent emotion. Modes do not confirm we’re here. They provide a sense of the other world.”

For three decades at Harvard, Marvin’s world centered around three ensembles — the Harvard Glee Club, the Radcliffe Choral Society and the Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum — with help from associate and assistant conductors. Each group comprises 60 singers who explore a range of music, from the Renaissance to the present.

Marvin, who also studied at the University of Illinois and Stanford University, never anticipated working at Harvard. He was directing the choruses at Lehigh University when he noticed an ad in the New York Times for the Harvard position. He beat out 160 applicants for the job.

“I’m from Glendale, California,” he said. “I could never have imagined going to Harvard. It was a very intimidating thought.”

But Marvin experienced nothing but joy making music with the Harvard ensembles, which gained national acclaim under his watch. For the 150th anniversary in 2008 of the Harvard Glee Club, the oldest college choir in the country, Marvin commissioned works by such eminent composers as Dominick Argento, Stephen Paulus and John Tavener.

Marvin’s concert with Quire Cleveland this weekend happens to be the first all-Renaissance program he’s ever led. He was invited to conduct the program by the ensemble’s founders, artistic director Ross Duffin and executive director Beverly Simmons, Stanford graduates and parents of David Simmons-Duffin, who sang under Marvin at Harvard.

Even after only one rehearsal, Marvin is impressed with Quire’s singers, saying they’re quick and “musically so intelligent.” He hopes to dispel at least one myth about the program’s music, which is dominated by Palestrina’s Pope Marcellus Mass.

“I think there’s this feeling that if it’s sacred music, it should be sort of quiet and in a steady state. It’s just not true,” said Marvin, who’s been a guest at many universities since retiring from Harvard in 2010.

“The chants are filled with rubati [rhythmic freedom] and polyphony and dissonances. I’m trying to bring out these qualities.”