John Oliver’s remarks on receiving the Alfred Nash Patterson Lifetime Achievement Award

Sunday, October 30, 2011
The College Club of Boston, Boston, Mass.

Transcribed by Peter Pulsifer

When I was growing up, my family moved to Janesville, Wisconsin, the home of the Parker pen, and a Chevrolet plant. My father was a comptroller with GM, and we moved every four years. The school I attended when just barely 8 yrs old was staffed by German nuns, who immediately put me to the piano and organ on the simplest pieces of Bach. I couldn’t quite reach the pedals yet, but my legs grew fast, I wanted to play the organ so much. Four years later we moved to Detroit—I was 11 or 12—and I got my first church job. I had a children’s, men’s, and mixed adult choir. I played all the services, the funerals, the weddings. I was something of a celebrity because I could be late for school [due to playing funerals]. It was an enormous self-awareness experience. I became very centered on music.

The next move was to California when I was 16. I auditioned for the Oakland Light Opera Association—it still exists. It was conducted by a gnarly man of the theater named John Falls. He said I was too young, but he’d let me do it anyway to give me experience. He took me into the chorus, dancing and singing in productions like Oklahoma and New Moon and so on. One day he said, “I’m not feeling well today, would you mind taking this rehearsal?” So I did. Sixteen-year-olds are not usually afraid of anything, they just get up and do it. He essentially gave me my first real chance as a conductor.

There was a singer, Jess Thomas, who became a famous Wagnerian singer, who was transitioning from a baritone to a tenor as the lead in New Moon. He was doing a recital at some place like the Rotary Club and he needed an accompanist who could play in higher keys than the printed version. Well, I could, because my voice had changed and I had to learn to play the music I was singing in church in a different key (I could no longer sing the Mass of the Angels in Eb, I had to transpose it down to C). I learned an “easy trick.” [...] That was the great moment. In California I also had my own group for the first time, the first incarnation of the John Oliver Chorale. I did the same thing in Notre Dame. No one was ever happy with it because it competed with existing groups, but I just went ahead. I couldn’t get enough of it.

Then I came to Boston, and spent the first few years on the beach as much as I could—didn’t go to graduate school right away. I also supported myself by playing in  clubs, and  by having a church job, the most important being Sacred Heart Church in Roslindale. Monsgr. Edward Murray was the pastor there, and he was a Trustee of the Boston Symphony.

In the third year I was here I went and auditioned with Lorna Cooke de Varon, then studied with her at NEC to get my Masters Degree. I also studied with Gladys Miller, one of my greatest influences in every way. I was sitting in Lorna’s office one day at NEC when Mary Smith, executive of the BSO, called, frantic. "Does anybody have a boy’s choir? We’re doing Woyzek next week and nobody told me there’s a boy’s choir." I was still not afraid of much, I was 24, and said, “sure!” I showed up with my boy’s choir, who probably didn’t come in correctly at first. It was successful enough that they asked me to form an all-Boston boys choir. I remember Andrew Raker and I going to parishes all around Boston auditioning boys for that choir. We recorded the Mahler 3 in 1966 with that.

In 1967 I got a call from Mary asking me to come to Tanglewood for the summer in 1968 and 1969 and be Erich Leinsdorf’s assistant for choral and vocal activities. "Sure, I could!" And did. Then, when Leinsdorf was leaving, Mary Smith and Harry Kraut, who went on to be Leonard Bernstein’s personal manager for many years, called me into their office and asked me if I would take over choral and vocal activities. I said, of course I would be honored to do that, but I think we need to have a chorus. There was no official chorus for the BSO at that time. Things were fine when Chorus pro Musica sang; not so fine when the school groups sang, because it’s very hard to have consistency with school choruses in language and in musical skills, of course. In the summer it was just thrown together whoever you could get to come there for the summer. When I was there in 1963 and 1964 there was a choral program, but when I was there in 1968 and 1969 most of the singers who sang in the chorus at Tanglewood were singers from the New York City Opera choruses who were out of work for the summer. They had nothing else to do, and Charles Wilson knew them, and Leinsdorf of course was big with the City Opera. It was a kind of throw-it-together kind of thing. I said, you really need something that will be consistent all the time.

I fought for the name. They didn’t want to give me the name, ”Tanglewood Festival Chorus”. I didn’t want it to be the “Boston Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.” I wanted it to have a distinct name. They wanted something connected with BU, I think they were afraid a little bit of unionization (in 1969-70). They gave in and I got the name.

The first week was trial and error; we had only 60 people in the chorus. We did the first weekend with Chorus pro Musica, I knew Bud already because he had been on the faculty at Tanglewood when I was there in 1963-1964. The second program was combined with Harvard Radcliffe. The third program, the Berlioz Requiem, was a combination of the new 60-voice TFC and members of the Framingham Choral Society, who happened to have me as a conductor. That’s when I was really on the spot, because my work was represented completely there. They came to the first rehearsal at Tanglewood, I think it was a Wednesday night and it was 110 degrees and it was pouring rain, and they sang flat for 2-1/2 to 3 hours. And I thought to myself, maybe I should have taken those architecture courses more seriously. But they had a good night’s sleep and got up the next day and there were fine. And that was it—we were off and running. It’s been a wonderful journey.

I was 20 years as the head of the vocal program, then it was time to move on. By that time, the whole vocal world had changed. When I started there were hardly any real professionals in the coaching area. Some, but not a lot. By the time I finished in 1990, every University across the country had extensive vocal training, vocal coaching, language courses—diction courses, which hardly existed when I started. I went on at MIT and the Chorale, a number of guest conducting but not a whole lot.

I’m going in December to conduct the Montreal Symphony in Messiah [sold-out shows on Dec 21 and 22 in a brand-new concert hall]. It’s a piece I haven’t done very much, interestingly enough. The first performance of it that I ever did myself was in Sanders Theatre. The soloists were Cheryl Studer, Jeffrey Gall, Randy Altman and David Peebles. A phenomenal performance. Before the early music movement, but we still did it in a very pared-down, slim way, though I have to confess we decorated it more in the style of Joan Sutherland than in the true Bach style. We did have a very good time, and Cheryl Studer was really something when she was 20 years old.

I just observed to Flossie, who I’ve known all these years, that when I founded the Tanglewood Chorus all the voice teachers told their students, "don’t sing in the chorus, you’ll wreck your voice." That was in 1970. Now the chorus is full of graduate students and undergraduate voice majors from all the conservatories in town. Bill Cutter told me recently he heard in the hall of Boston Conservatory some kids saying, “you’ve got to join our chorus, we memorize everything!” I thought that was a long way around from the early years when it was sometimes like pulling teeth to get the intonation correct, to get the language correct, and all that kind of thing. But of course, we did have had 42 years to work on it. In fact, when they proposed this award to me, I said, “but it’s not over yet!”

I’m very, very honored. Congratulations for the work you do, it’s very important.

We often say to ourselves after a Tanglewood Festival Chorus rehearsal—and it’s true of all choruses—that the diversity in the room is so extreme that you’re sure that not a whole lot of those people would be friends outside the room. And yet, in the context of making music everything comes together. In our troubled world today, that’s very important.