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Tanglewood Festival Chorus Pays Tribute To Founder As Ranks Falter Amid Re-Auditions

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)

This Sunday evening in Lenox, current and former members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus will sing in a tribute concert to their late founder and director, John Oliver.

Some may have in mind something Oliver once said about the chorus, which was cited in his Boston Globe obituary this April: “I feel that what we’ve built is something enormously essential. And I don’t think it will change much.”

Those words seem ghoulishly ironic now, given the events of the past few months.

For dozens of singers, some of whom have been with the chorus for decades, the concert — along with two other performances this weekend — is the end of their tenure. Oliver’s successor James Burton stunned the TFC this spring with a wide-scale re-auditioning, and subsequent purge, of many longtime members.

One-third of the chorus — about 100 singers — were re-auditioned. No official numbers have been released, but it appears that about 30 choristers have been cut, and between 40 and 45 have resigned rather than go through the process. Over the next two years, the remainder of the singers will be re-auditioned as well.

Some who will sing this weekend are among those who have been shown the door. Some singers simply disliked Burton or the way the process was handled, and have resigned. Others have passed Burton’s audition, but remain mystified at the scope of the changes.

“We thought we were going to be part of something new and better with Burton,” says Stephen Owades, who has been with the chorus since its 1970 inception — 48 years — and was one of those singers who re-auditioned but was rejected. “Almost everybody is going to be uncomfortable this weekend.”

Owades may be on the way out from the all-volunteer ensemble, and he’s understandably disappointed. But he remains level-headed about the process — one that he’s been through before.

“I’ve been re-auditioned eight or nine times over the years by John,” he says. Oliver did re-audition his ranks periodically, and he did let some singers go, but never on the scale that Burton is undertaking.

“Re-auditioning is certainly normal,” Owades says. “Your voice changes. There are certain choruses that have age limits — nobody over 55 can sing in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, for instance. All of that is perfectly reasonable.

“But this is not a case where all the old people were rounded up and shot,” Owades says. “There are young, brilliant singers who were cut, and there were some old singers who weren’t. The sheer scale of it tells me Burton had to make wholesale changes. And I assume he was backed up by the higher-ups in the orchestra.”

Why Burton is making the changes, and whether this does indeed come from other orchestra leaders — specifically music director Andris Nelsons — is at the heart of the chorus’ anxiety. The BSO provided a response, in the form of joint statements — comments that reflect the combined views of Burton, managing director Mark Volpe and artistic administrator and Tanglewood director Tony Fogg.

The BSO reiterates that auditioning is normal for any chorus and that the organization has been going through a big transition since Oliver stepped down in 2015. (Burton was named the new director in February 2017.)

“As is usual during a period of transition — no matter how hard people work to avoid it — there will be slippage in the quality of standard that the group has striven to maintain throughout its history. On some level, this was the case with the TFC,” the BSO said in a statement to WBUR.

In a letter dated June 12 the BSO also shared with WBUR, Burton notes an interest in improving the TFC's quality. "Choruses like ours have high artistic standards, and we must find the best ways to maintain them on both the individual and group levels. As we go forward, I hope every chorus member will continue to develop as a singer and as a musician: by doing so, every singer will play a significant part in the gradual raising of the chorus's standard of performance over time," Burton wrote.

What kind of sound Burton wants to re-establish remains a mystery to most. And many are reluctant to guess for two reasons: either the singers have passed his audition and need to establish a new working relationship with Burton, or they haven’t been auditioned yet and don’t want to poison the well.

Some of the choristers do support Burton’s actions, and are praising his musicianship. Karen Wilcox said, “James Burton has exhibited grace, class and professionalism during the ongoing rehearsals. I empathize for those cut; but personal grief is no excuse for the vicious words used toward Mr. Burton and the BSO.”

Virginia Bailey called Burton "a master of his craft," praised his initiatives like the new Children’s Choir and his rehearsal style: “I leave rehearsals exhausted but exhilarated from the full attention given to every detail.”

Andrew Scoglio said Burton “is bringing the chorus to a new level of musicality and artistry.”

Owades, who did not pass the re-audition, suggests strongly that some of the changes Burton is incorporating in the chorus comes from Nelsons.

“We don’t hear a lot of praise from Nelsons,” Owades says. “We always got feedback from Seiji, and from Levine, and from guest conductors. They would at least shake hands with the chorus when we were filing offstage after a major performance. We never got that from Nelsons."

When he was first appointed, the chorus prepared and learned some Latvian songs, and sang them for Andris and Kristine (Nelsons and his then-wife, soprano Kristine Opolais, are from Latvia).

“Andris did not look happy,” Owades says, “and Kristine was visibly unhappy. Nelsons was heard by someone saying, ‘Is that what American choruses sound like?’ ”

The TFC performs three times this weekend — at Oliver’s memorial, and also in Saturday’s “La Bohème” and Sunday’s “Chichester Psalms.” After a rehearsal break this week, Owades says that he “is here to work,” as is everyone else — whether they are singing for the final time or not. But says he feels that things are changing.

“Rehearsals with James Burton now feel like dinner with the family, where the parents are getting divorced and are just staying together for the kids,” Owades says. “We used to talk to the conductor in rehearsal breaks, and laugh at his jokes. No more. There are fissures in the chorus, and it’s new and scary for us.”

Related:

Keith Powers Twitter Music Critic, The ARTery
Keith Powers is a classical music critic for The ARTery.

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