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After A Life Filled With Song, Tanglewood Festival Chorus Founder John Oliver Dies At 78

John Oliver the night he was awarded the Tanglewood Medal of Honor before his last performance as the Tanglewood Festival Chorus' conductor. (Courtesy Hilary Scott/BSO)MoreCloseclosemore
John Oliver the night he was awarded the Tanglewood Medal of Honor before his last performance as the Tanglewood Festival Chorus' conductor. (Courtesy Hilary Scott/BSO)

John Oliver, who founded the Boston Symphony Orchestra's Tanglewood Festival Chorus more than 45 years ago, died Wednesday night in Great Barrington. He was 78 years old.

Before stepping down as conductor due to illness in 2015, Oliver had led more than 1,000 choral performances at venues including Symphony Hall, Tanglewood and Carnegie Hall.

"John Oliver was probably the person most responsible for the high level of professionalism of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus," says The ARTery's classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz. "He made it one of the best symphony choruses in the world."

He also taught at the Tanglewood Music Center for 32 years, and nurtured students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and at Boston University.

While on faculty at MIT he conducted the Glee Club, the Choral Society, the Chamber Chorus and the Concert Choir. Oliver’s lengthy list of vocal groups he helped support speaks to the influence he had on many music-making communities in Boston, Cambridge and beyond. He also conducted the Framingham Choral Society. In 1977 he founded the John Oliver Chorale.

John Oliver with Seiji Ozawa at Tanglewood in 1973. (Courtesy BSO Archives)
John Oliver with Seiji Ozawa at Tanglewood in 1973. (Courtesy BSO Archives)

A consummate collaborator, Oliver worked with symphonic conductors including Seiji Ozawa, Keith Lockhart and John Williams. He had creative input on more than 40 commercial recordings.

Oliver also guest-conducted outside the U.S. with the New Japan Philharmonic and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra. He earned music degrees from the University of Notre Dame and the New England Conservatory.

In a statement Thursday, BSO music director Andris Nelsons applauded Oliver's commitment to the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

“John’s work with the TFC and the BSO over many decades will always be an important part of the orchestra’s great legacy and its mission to realize the very best in the classical music art form,” Nelsons said.

Managing Director Mark Volpe reflected on Oliver’s enduring dedication to the orchestra.

"His enormous contribution to the BSO will be remembered far into the future, as the orchestra’s impressive accomplishments and vibrant tradition continue to be documented for music lovers today and for generations to come. John’s loss is deeply felt by countless music fans and thousands of singers who have been personally moved by his profound musicianship, gregarious personality, and legendary sense of humor. There are no adequate words to describe how much he will be missed.”

Andrea Shea Twitter Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.

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