On the retirement of John Oliver, my musical North Star

Today, it was announced (officially and publicly) that John Oliver, founder and sole conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus for 45 years, was stepping down from his leadership position at the end of the 2015 Tanglewood season.

We knew it would happen someday, even if we don’t know why it’s now.  The lure of his greenhouse gardens?  The tough commutes to Boston and the Berkshires?  A break to write his memoirs?  A need for the next chapter?

It’s not like he’s dying or quitting making music (which, for Maestro Frühbeck de Burgos were equivalent); he and his white pants will continue to be a strong presence out at Tanglewood with his Master Teacher Chair position, and I’m sure as “Conductor Laureate of the TFC” he’ll appear again in our Symphony Hall rehearsal room to over the ensuing years.  But it’s the end of an era — his era.

Conductors, choristers, orchestra members, and critics will undoubtedly praise his musicianship, his talent, his longevity, and the long-lasting effect he’s had on the Boston vocal music scene.  But let me tell you what John Oliver means to me.

From age 5 to 17, my private piano teacher (hi, Mrs. Sori!) was my musical lens, and in some ways, a life coach.  She not only tapped into my musical talents, but instilled in me perseverance, the work ethics of practice, and the joys of performance.  She encouraged my positive outlook.  She taught me about trusting the talents you were given, and giving back to the world by celebrating them.  When I left her behind and pursued a music minor in college, my musical world broadened.  But for a year, I had no musical guidance — no North Star — beyond brief inspirations from professors teaching us the intricacies of harmony and counterpoint, music history, composing… and choral music, through a weekly sight singing lab.

On a whim in 1991, I joined the MIT Concert Choir (as a course for credit), which John Oliver conducted.  And John, whether he knew it or not, became my new musical North Star.  I knew nothing of choral singing before that class, but walked out of college 4 years later having sung masses and requiems and symphonies and tone poems by Mozart, Stravinsky, Beethoven, Brahms, Verdi, Mendelssohn, and others.  I was hooked.

It’s because of that experience that, after graduating in February 1996, I hopped in and out of local choruses and grabbed a few “rent-a-bass” pickup chorus gigs, because I had developed such a love of singing and choral music.  And, to my chagrin, I began to further appreciate John’s approach as a conductor, by not having it in my life any more.  I started to see how his instincts, musical interpretations, and technical corrections (simple example: his definitive “eighths out” for rests to line up our cutoffs and increase the intelligibility of the text) really fixed a lot of choral problems that other groups and conductors were struggling to solve.

In 1998 I found out that John Oliver conducted the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.  So I auditioned, and was fortunate enough to get on the Pops-only roster.  Then he invited me to join a couple summer concert rosters, including the prelude concert that year.  “Tanglewood… what’s that?  Where is it?” I asked.  Needless to say, I was hooked again.

I had my musical North Star back, moreso than ever before.  That’s because the TFC was continually molded by John into what he wanted from a chorus.  Those instincts and interpretations that made so much sense to me were now infused into this collective group, and blossomed in every rehearsal and performance.  His focus on internalizing the music jived with my ability to memorize.  The drudgery of weekly note practices from community choruses was replaced with opportunities to go deeper into what the music was communicating.  Our musical flexibility increased as we learned to adapt his approaches to that week’s conductor’s vision.  Our musical intelligence grew from his master classes, mental visualizations, and other singing advice he doled out (in between jokes, of course) during his time with us.  It got me further than I could ever afford to travel via $50-$100/hr voice lessons.

In a sense, most of what I love about my life has been possible thanks to John being part of my life.  That’s because in 2000, I met my future wife in the chorus. That December I proposed to her on stage during a Pops concert.   If I hadn’t learned to sing with John, and been part of his chorus, I probably would have never met her, and grown this wonderful family.

In the early 2000s, John kicked me down from the regular performance roster back to the Pops-only roster.  After two failed auditions to get back on the regular roster, John explained: “Your musical intelligence is fine, but you don’t know how to produce sound correctly.  I can’t use you until you learn to use your instrument.  Take some private voice lessons, then come back.”  Humbled, I did as he asked, and discovered that I was Doing It All Wrong(TM).  When I returned triumphantly with my newly discovered voice, John nodded and put me right back on the roster.  Without that kick in the pants, I would have lumbered along with my “tired back-pew-of-the-church singer” voice and never challenged my level.  Oh, I’ll never be one of the best 30-60 core singers in the group who sing prelude concerts; I’m not investing in my voice like the harder working, more dedicated career musicians in the chorus are doing.  He’s continued to be that teacher, for all of us.  He doesn’t push us, so much as the weight of his expectations and our desire to achieve those high levels of musicianship push us — and that’s part of the culture he’s created.  I’ve been incredibly blessed with the opportunity to make music with him for the last 20-25 years… and to do it the way I’ve learned to make music… the way I’ll now always make music.

There are chorus members who can also call themselves personal friends with John.  I am not one of them.  I’ve never joined his table at Brasserie Jo, or sat with him at our Tent Club after parties.  But you know what?  That’s totally fine.  You never really want to be too close to your teachers, or they lose that authority and a little bit of that mystique.  We’re not strangers by any means: he’s complimented me on my newsletter articles, I’ve shared a few jokes and observations with him in hallway conversations, and I’m quite confident that his ear and intimate knowledge of his singers means he can pick my individual voice out of a chorus of 20 basses.  He may not have truly appreciated how he’s affected my musical life, let alone the lives of the thousands of choristers he’s coached, urged, pleaded, harangued, inspired, critiqued, and goaded until he got the sound he was looking for.  But he has.

I’ve sat at John’s musical side and basked in his tutelage since 1991; others, even longer.  There will be other stars to navigate by, but none will shine as bright in my musical life as John Oliver has.  We all wish him the best.

2 responses to “On the retirement of John Oliver, my musical North Star

  1. Pingback: The Promise of Singing | Just Another Bass

  2. Pingback: Learning to Accept | Just Another Bass

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