JOHN OLIVER, FOUNDER AND CONDUCTOR OF THE BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA’S TANGLEWOOD FESTIVAL CHORUS, HAS DIED
John Oliver, who founded the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus in 1970, and remained its sole conductor until his retirement in August 2015, died late last night in Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, following a long illness, at age 78. Mr. Oliver was born to Marie and Frank Oliver on June 4, 1939, in Teaneck, N.J. He is survived by his cousins Helene Carskaddin, Janet Domerski, Lyn Neandross, Jerilyn Simpson, and Nancy Sorge, as well as his dear friends Joel Evans, James Soules, and Anthony St. George.
A private service will take place this week in the Berkshires. A concert in honor of Mr. Oliver’s memory will be scheduled during the 2018 Tanglewood season. Further details will be forthcoming. Donations in John Oliver’s memory can be made to the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus Fund.
Quote from Andris Nelsons, Ray and Maria Stata BSO Music Director
“John Oliver’s dedication to forming and then leading the Tanglewood Festival Chorus for 45 years represents an extraordinary commitment to the Boston Symphony Orchestra and to the art of choral singing. Our hearts go out to all who loved and respected John, including his many fans throughout the BSO family and beyond in the music world at large. 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.”
Quote from Mark Volpe, Eunice and Julian Cohen Managing Director
“Few people in the 137-year history of the Boston Symphony Orchestra dedicated so many years of their creative lives to the orchestra as John Oliver during his 45-year tenure as conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, 1970-2015. All of us at the BSO are very grateful to John for his steadfast commitment to his vision in founding the TFC and nurturing it through decades of acclaimed performances here in Boston, throughout the country, and around the world. 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.”
Quote from James Burton, BSO Choral Director and Conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus
“Everyone involved with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus is deeply saddened to hear of John Oliver’s passing. Regrettably, I never had the chance to meet John in person, however I am acutely aware of the high regard in which he was held by his singers. Many of them shared their most beloved musical experiences under his direction, guidance, and, inevitably, his friendship too. I am sure that everyone who worked with him, including the many hundreds of former chorus members, will find his passing a difficult and painful loss.
Everyone at the BSO today mourns a great friend of the orchestra and an outstanding champion for choral music. It is thanks to John’s incredible passion and dedication that the BSO has a prestigious chorus to call its own: John had the vision to establish the TFC, and the vigor and drive to lead it for nearly half a century. His creative and innovative spirit will serve us as an ongoing inspiration as the chorus and I continue and develop his important and unique musical legacy.”
Quote from David Norris, Chair of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus Committee
“For over four decades John Oliver was the center of the musical lives of thousands of singers who volunteered their time, energy, and talents for the privilege of working with him. What we all know about the major works in the choral repertoire we learned from John. Our devotion to him, and his to us, is evidenced by many who have sung for him and because of him for close to half a century. His legacy will live on through the musical lives of those lucky enough to have sung with John. We will honor his gift to us each time we raise our voices in song.”
In his forty-five years as conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which he founded in 1970, John Oliver prepared the TFC for more than 1000 performances, including appearances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall, Tanglewood, Carnegie Hall, and on tour in Europe and the Far East, as well as with visiting orchestras and as a solo ensemble. When Mr. Oliver stepped down from his leadership position with the TFC in August 2015, at the end of the 2015 Tanglewood season, he was awarded the BSO’s Tanglewood Medal and received the newly created lifetime title of Founder and Conductor Laureate of the TFC. In 2016 and 2017 he held the Tanglewood Music Center’s Donald and Laurie Peck Master Teacher Chair.
John Oliver had a major impact on musical life in Boston and beyond through his work with countless TFC members, former students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (where he taught for thirty-two years), and Fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center who now perform with distinguished musical institutions throughout the world. His affiliation with the Boston Symphony began in 1964 when, at twenty-four, he prepared the Sacred Heart Boychoir of Roslindale for the BSO’s performances and recording of excerpts from Berg’s Wozzeck led by Erich Leinsdorf. In 1966 he prepared the choir for the BSO’s performances and recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, also with Leinsdorf, soon after which Leinsdorf asked him to assist with the choral and vocal music program at the Tanglewood Music Center.
In 1970, John Oliver was named Director of Vocal and Choral Activities at the Tanglewood Music Center and founded the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, going on to prepare the chorus in more than 200 works for chorus and orchestra, as well as dozens more a cappella pieces, and for more than forty commercial releases with conductors Seiji Ozawa, Bernard Haitink, Sir Colin Davis, Leonard Bernstein, James Levine, Keith Lockhart, and John Williams. Mr. Oliver’s album with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus of a cappella 20th-century American choral music, recorded at the invitation of Deutsche Grammophon, received a Grammy nomination in 1979. In 2010, to mark the TFC’s 40th anniversary, BSO Classics released a disc of music by Bach, Bruckner, Copland, Lotti, and Martin drawn from live performances given at Tanglewood by Mr. Oliver and the TFC between 1998 and 2005. Their live recording on BSO Classics of Ravel’s complete Daphnis et Chloé with James Levine and the BSO won the Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance of 2009. John Oliver made his Boston Symphony conducting debut in August 1985 at Tanglewood with Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and his BSO subscription series debut in December 1985 with Bach’s B minor Mass, later returning to the Tanglewood podium with music of Mozart in 1995 (to mark the TFC’s 25th anniversary), Beethoven’s Mass in C in 1998, and Bach’s motet Jesu, meine Freude in 2010 (to mark the TFC’s 40th anniversary). In February 2012, replacing Kurt Masur, he led the BSO and Tanglewood Festival Chorus in subscription performances of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, subsequently repeating that work with the BSO and TFC for his Carnegie Hall debut that March.
In addition to his work with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and Tanglewood Music Center, Mr. Oliver held posts as conductor of the Framingham Choral Society, as a member of the faculty and director of the chorus at Boston University, and for many years on the faculty of MIT, where he was a lecturer and then senior lecturer in music. While at MIT, he conducted the MIT Glee Club, Choral Society, Chamber Chorus, and Concert Choir. In 1977 he founded the John Oliver Chorale, which performed a wide-ranging repertoire encompassing masterpieces by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Stravinsky, as well as seldom heard works by Carissimi, Bruckner, Ives, Martin, and Dallapiccola. With the Chorale he recorded two albums for Koch International: the first of works by Martin Amlin, Elliott Carter, William Thomas McKinley, and Bright Sheng, the second of works by Amlin, Carter, and Vincent Persichetti. He and the Chorale also recorded Charles Ives’s The Celestial Country and Charles Loeffler’s Psalm 137 for Northeastern Records, and Donald Martino’s Seven Pious Pieces for New World Records.
Mr. Oliver’s appearances as a guest conductor included Mozart’s Requiem with the New Japan Philharmonic and Shinsei Chorus, and Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Vaughan Williams’s A Sea Symphony with the Berkshire Choral Institute. In May 1999 he prepared the chorus and children’s choir for André Previn’s performances of Benjamin Britten’s Spring Symphony with the NHK Symphony in Japan; in 2001-02 he conducted the Carnegie Hall Choral Workshop in preparation for Previn’s Carnegie performance of Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem. Mr. Oliver made his Montreal Symphony Orchestra debut in December 2011 conducting performances of Handel’s Messiah. In October 2011 he received the Alfred Nash Patterson Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by Choral Arts New England in recognition of his outstanding contributions to choral music. Mr. Oliver received music degrees from the University of Notre Dame and New England Conservatory.
Articles about John Oliver from his retirement in August 2015:
Boston Globe: A final chorus for John Oliver at Tanglewood, BSO
Oliver will step down from the TFC on Sunday, when it gives its final performance under his guidance. In a neat bit of symmetry, his BSO career will end as it began: with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, under the baton of guest conductor Asher Fisch. Before the performance, Oliver will be presented with the second Tanglewood Medal in recognition of service and achievement. (The first was awarded to Seiji Ozawa in 2012.) “John’s always delivered, even under the toughest circumstances,” said Tony Fogg, the BSO’s artistic administrator. “And I think that’s been a very important quality to his work and his profession. John has kept a level of musical and artistic draw that has maintained that big corpus of singers for many, many years now.”
John Oliver at Tanglewood (Interview with WCRB’s Brian McCreath)
On the weekend of his final concert at the conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver talks with WCRB’s Brian McCreath about his five-decade-plus association with the Boston Symphony and Tanglewood, as well as what his next chapter will bring.
BSO chorus master John Oliver prepares for a change in tempo
While the Beethoven Ninth hangs in the air, another farewell will be occurring, one intricately involved with the performance of the Ninth — and, previously, 200 works in 1,000 BSO performances in Boston and the Berkshires. John Oliver will retire after 46 years as founder and director of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.
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