Raising the Bar: John Oliver Reflects on 45 Years Leading the Tanglewood Festival Chorus

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus has known many conductors but only one master. Its founder and sole leader, John Oliver, is stepping down this summer after forty-five years and more than 1,000 performances.

Oliver, for decades a music professor at MIT and the founder of his own twenty-singer chorale, is retiring after performances this summer of Mahler's Symphony No. 8 and Beethoven's 9th.

The TFC is widely regarded as the finest orchestral chorus in the world and is renowned for singing all performances -- regardless of language, era, or difficulty -- from memory.

I had the privilege of singing under Oliver in the 1980s, when Seiji Ozawa was the principal conductor and guest conductors included Kurt Mazur and Charles Dutoit. I relied on those Tanglewood ties to gain an interview with Oliver last week.

Michael Levin: The Tanglewood chorus is your baby. It must feel quite odd to think that it will be in someone else's hands.

John Oliver: Yes, it does. I think there's no way around that. But I have books to write -- I've started three different books, in fact -- and that takes a lot of time. I'll have plenty of things to occupy me. I'm a gardener and have three greenhouses, and I'll be 80 in four years. While I have the strength, I'd like to enjoy some of those things.

Michael: How did the Tanglewood Festival Chorus come about?

John: When I was 24, I was sitting in the choral office at the New England Conservatory, where I was the assistant conductor. Mary Smith, who later became one of my dearest friends in the world, was the artistic administrator of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She called the office and said, "We're doing Wozzeck next week. Does anybody have a boy choir?" I didn't know there was such a thing as a boy choir! And I said, "Sure!" So we performed excerpts from Wozzeck with Phyllis Curtin, with Erich Leinsdorf conducting.

Two years later, the Boston Symphony Orchestra asked me to come form a larger boy choir to perform Mahler's Third. So I auditioned boys from all over the city and we recorded that as well. Two years after that, I got a phone call from Harry Kraut, who was the business manager of the Orchestra at the time, and he said, "Mr. Leinsdorf would like you to come to Tanglewood and be his assistant at choral and vocal activities. Are you interested?"

Of course I accepted. In those two years, I told both Harry and Mary that the Boston Symphony should have their own chorus and that it should be named the Tanglewood Festival Chorus -- and that I was the guy to lead it. They looked at me like I was crazy.

They were hesitant because creating an organization like Tanglewood would mean stepping on some toes, because the Tanglewood Festival Chorus would be the principle chorus and groups like the Handel and Haydn Society would get shut out. But in any case, to my great surprise -- and I'm even more surprised now after forty years -- they said yes.

Michael: What was your relationship with Erich Leinsdorf?

John: He could be very short with people. He did not suffer fools; let me tell you that. But he never said an unkind word to me, and he always explained things thoroughly -- and laughed with me. We got along just great. He was a great, great influence on my life.

Michael: At what point did the Tanglewood Festival Chorus really consume a large part of your attention?

John: In 1970, when I started the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, they also appointed me head of vocal and choral music at Tanglewood, so that was the other half of the job. I was a full-time faculty member at MIT, and I was running the John Oliver Chorale, for which I had to raise money for a five-concert season every year. I also had twenty private vocal students, so I guess I had a lot of energy.

Michael: I'm tired just hearing it.

John: I'm tired when I repeat it.

Michael: Was the standard of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus from the very beginning to sing without a score?

John: That came later. The first time we sang without a score was Tosca, in the mid '80s. The lights were out for a lot of the time on a staged piece the Boston Symphony Orchestra was performing, so the chorus had to memorize the piece. The same thing happened the next season with Honegger's Jeanne d'Arch au bûcher, so that, too, had to be memorized. I said to myself, if those two pieces can be memorized, why not Symphony No. 9? They sing it every year. So I asked them to do that. I don't remember exactly how it evolved, but there were objections from a certain segment of the chorus. It was a lot of work, God knows, but on the other hand, the people who were proud of it gradually outnumbered the naysayers.

Michael: How did you get started conducting?

John: When my family moved to California, I was 16. I auditioned for the Oakland Civic Light Opera, which put on shows like Carousel, Oklahoma!, and Finian's Rainbow. John Falls, this stereotypical grizzled theater guy, ran the opera. It had a wonderful amphitheater on the Berkeley hillside, and if you were in the audience, you could see both bridges. Falls said, "You're too young, but you need experience, so you can audition." He not only took me in the chorus, I ended up starting to lead rehearsals, because he was getting older. I became his assistant conductor within three or four months.

That was a huge breakthrough for me. First of all, it was outside the Catholic Church, and it was an entirely different kind of music. It allowed me to come out of my shell. Working with John was one of my great experiences in life.

Michael: You grew up in a family that was devoted enough to religion to send you to parochial school and then, out of all the schools in the country, you went to Notre Dame.

John: My mother was religious, but not very, and my father was a Presbyterian. He was not even Catholic. But the fact is, in those days, the best education could be had in the lower grades at a Catholic school. It was simply better than the public schools.

Michael: I'm just wondering about a connection between your approach to spirituality and the music that you've been involved with.

John: I'm still a spiritual person in the sense that I get up every morning and am in awe of the universe, including the evils of our world. And I wonder, like anybody else does, how did this happen? I am not a religious person in the sense of organized religion. I fell out of the church when I was about 24 and was never tempted to go back again.

Michael: Right. I would assume that there's a certain amount of spirituality just simply in the music.

John: Sure, there is.

Michael: And that you connect with that, of course.

John: Absolutely. And I'm a very emotional person. I'm known to have my voice break up when I'm telling the chorus something. I said that to Phyllis Curtin recently. And she said, "Of course you are. You can't be an artist without being very emotional."

Michael: You've left quite a legacy.

John: Thank you. My father always said, "Raise the bar." My mother said it too. Raise the bar, and the people that aren't up to it will drop away, and the people that love the challenge will draw other people that love the challenge. I got very good advice from my parents.