The founding conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus will step down following this summer’s performances in Lenox. It will mark the end of a career with the Boston Symphony Orchestra that spanned nearly five decades.
John Oliver joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra as assistant music director in 1967. Shortly thereafter he told management they shouldn’t be relying on school choruses for performances.
“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,” Oliver said. “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.”
So in 1970 Oliver founded the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. Starting with 60 singers and now with some 340 volunteer members, the chorus has logged more than a thousand performances in the United States, Europe and the Far East spanning four BSO music directors. It even helped close the opening ceremonies of the 1998 Winter Olympics and can be heard on the Saving Private Ryan soundtrack. Yet Oliver says no one concert or venue sticks out as a favorite.
“I’ve never enjoyed anything in my life as much as hearing a singer audition,” he said. “It tells you so much about the human condition and the human perspective on life. So I’ve been very blessed.”
Oliver estimates thousands of people have been a part of the chorus over the past 45 years. He took his final Symphony Hall bow as conductor earlier this month, an event he says was quiet as requested. Oliver says he wants this summer’s final Tanglewood concerts to be his only farewell tour.
“What I’m looking forward to most is my prelude on the final Friday night in which I’m doing Opus 42 of Brahms and Opus 42 of Barber and another wonderful other piece of Barber for timpani in men’s chorus called A Stopwatch and an Ordnance Map,” Oliver explained. “Bach’s Singet dem Herrn to start and ending with the two choruses from Copland’s The Tender Land. Those are signature pieces for me. The Ninth Symphony overshadows it for the public, but for me that is the most fantastic thing.”
BSO managing director Mark Volpe says Oliver’s legacy will be lasting and he will be hard to replace.
“It’s a real dedication to the art,” Volpe said. “He loves music and he loves the voice. Anybody that spends time with him realizes that right away. I think the chorus always had great respect for his commitment to music.”
This summer the BSO will honor Oliver with the Tanglewood Medal, joining Seiji Ozawa as just the second recipient.
At 75 years old, Oliver says it feels like the right time to step down. He’s starting to write three books; a memoir, a comic novel based in the 1940s South and a book of quotes from rehearsals throughout the chorus’ history. The BSO will put together a search committee to find a successor while Oliver will teach at Tanglewood.
“Next September I’m looking forward to going down to Great Barrington and buying my four newspapers every day and my decaf iced latte,” Oliver said. “The good folks at Dunkin’ Donuts always fill in the rest saying ‘Whole milk and two Equals, please drive up,’” said Oliver.