BSO Tanglewood Festival Chorus Founder Dead At 78

Apr 12, 2018

The founder of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus has died.

The orchestra says John Oliver died at age 78 Wednesday night at Great Barrington’s Fairview Hospital after a long illness. He retired three years ago.

When Oliver spoke to WAMC in 2015, he told the story of how he unexpectedly found himself at the head of his own chorus in 1970.

“I said to the management, you don’t have a chorus! You don’t have a chorus of your own! You rely on school choruses, who can be good and enthusiastic, but one year they don’t have tenors, one year they don’t have sopranos, one year the French is lousy. That kind of thing," said Oliver. "So I said ‘You need a chorus and I’m the guy.’ And to my great astonishment, at least now, they actually took me up on it.”

And with that, he was elevated from Assistant Musical Director to conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. With it, came unique challenges.

“With a volunteer chorus, you actually have to be a teacher. So John spent a great deal of time not just preparing the chorus for performances at Tanglewood and Symphony Hall in Boston, but training them to sing at a very high level," said Mark Volpe, Managing Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

“He had a well over 40-year association with the orchestra. He’s the founder, he built it into one of the great volunteer orchestras in the United States, performing with the likes of Seiji Ozawa and Leonard Bernstein, and of course Andris Nelsons and Jim Levine. And the reality is he committed himself to this chorus, the chorus committed to him, and it’s one of the great success stories in music,” said Volpe.

Since its inception, the chorus has swelled from 60 members to around 340, all volunteers. It travels the world, performing to thousands, and even made it into the 1998 Olympics and Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning “Saving Private Ryan.”

“He has a successor, an incredibly talented English chorus director, James Burton," said Volpe. "And the reality is I think that one of his charges will be to build and carry on the legacy of John Oliver.”

Volpe says Oliver’s love of the chorus was matched only by his affection for its home.

“He fell absolutely in love with the Berkshires, and in fact, chose to spend his last years, his post-retirement years in the Berkshires,” said Volpe.

In his remarks on retirement to WAMC in 2015, Oliver spoke glowingly about his bond with the community.

“Next September I’m looking forward to going down to Great Barrington and buying my four newspapers every day and my decaf iced latte," said Oliver. "The good folks at Dunkin’ Donuts always fill in the rest, saying ‘Whole milk and two Equals, please drive up.’”

The BSO says there are plans to commemorate Oliver with a gathering of chorus members past and present sometime this summer. 

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.