John Oliver

John Oliver

Boston Singers' Resource News Bulletin, April 28 , 2007

There are few names in Boston’s vocal music scene that are as widely known as John Oliver’s. Few musicians have been a more consistent presence and it’s fair to say that none have had a greater impact on the technical and musical quality of choral singing in Boston and Greater New England.

As the founder and sole conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver has been preparing works for performance under the baton of the conductors of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Pops Orchestra, as well as numerous other world-class conductors, since 1970. In addition, he has brought the TFC to international attention and acclaim with tours in Europe and Asia, including the famous 1994 visit to Hong Kong and Japan with Seiji Ozawa and the BSO. The chorus has been recorded for the sound tracks of "Saving Private Ryan", "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", and "Mystic River" and the TFC represented the United States at the Opening Ceremonies of the 1998 Winter Olympics when Seiji Ozawa conducted six choruses on five continents, all linked by satellite, in Beethoven’s "Ode to Joy". 2007 TFC Concert Schedule

For many years until his (semi-)retirement in 1996, John Oliver was conductor of the MIT Chamber Chorus and MIT Concert Choir and a senior lecturer in music at MIT. In 1977 he founded the John Oliver Chorale which, until it was disbanded in 1996, provided an outlet for his interest both in new choral works and in important works of the Canon such as Bach’s ‘B minor Mass’and Beethoven’s ‘Missa Solemnis.’

These accomplishments, and more, are well-known facts to readers of the BSO and Tanglewood programs. Internet links to more information about John Oliver and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus can be found at the bottom of this article. Links.

When Mr. Oliver graciously offered to talk with BSR, earlier this year, we asked him about his background and about his thoughts concerning the work he has been doing for nearly four decades. We were lucky to catch him during a rare, six-week break between the end of the last TFC season and the start of a new rehearsal season. He was at his home in the Berkshires, working in one of his three year-round green-houses where he grows fruits and vegetables. He likes to say he could live off the land there.

You might assume that he came from a musical family. But, aside from an uncle (also John) who played the trombone and his mother, a pianist of no small accomplishment, his musical gifts stand out within the family. He began playing the piano at age 7. By the third grade, he had also achieved a level of competence on the organ so that he was playing the 7:00 AM mass for the community of Dominican nuns near his home in Janesville, WI. “They were all very-well educated and recognized my talent. Started me right off playing the Bach Little Preludes and Fugues. It was a good start.” Along the way he also discovered a gift for singing.

By the early 1960’s John Oliver was involved with the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood. He had been a part-time student at Tanglewood in 1963 and 1964 and was invited to go full-time both summers. But he was unable to attend during the month of July. Luck seemed to favor him, though. Lorna deVaron invited him as, essentially, a ringer throughout August of both years. Fortune struck again in 1964 while he was an assistant at the New England Conservatory. As he tells it, “The phone rang one day and it was Mary Smith. She wanted to know ‘Does anybody have a boy choir? We’re recording Wozzeck next week.’ I said, ‘Oh, sure.’ (I was 24 years old.) ‘Sure, I can do it.’ So we whipped Wozzeck together in a week.” The ‘we’ was Erich Leinsdorf and the BSO, and Wozzeck was Oliver’s first recording with them. The following year, he held auditions and prepared a boy choir for a BSO recording of the Mahler Third Symphony. By 1967, the year he received his Master of Music Degree in Choral Conducting from The New England Conservatory, John Oliver was asked to be the assistant in the choral and vocal music program under Leinsdorf.

For the next few years, along with his work for the BSO, Oliver was the conductor of the Framingham Choral Society. Then, in 1970, he was asked to create a permanent chorus for the BSO, which, until that time, had rotated among established local choruses and student groups from Harvard and New England Conservatory. Oliver even chose the ensemble's name, “something that would distinguish us, not just 'the Boston Symphony Orchestra & Chorus.’ "

Since then, twice a year Oliver auditions and hand-picks his chorus members. (Current members must re-audition every three years.) What does he look for in these auditions? What gets his attention? His answer is, at first, diplomatic and evasive. “Auditions are so fascinating, such a kaleidoscopic look at the human condition, that I don’t really think of anything I dislike.” But then, on reflection, his response has significance. “Technique and very accurate readings of music – loud, soft, tempi – all this is a given. But it really boils down, essentially, to whether they’re communicating something. And it isn’t so much that they’re standing there trying to communicate, it’s that they’re standing there and the song or aria itself is communicating something to them; and that it comes through their voice. That’s essentially the most important thing.”

For some, the variety of voices that can be found in the Tanglewood Festival Chorus may be puzzling since there is a mix of both the biggest voices as well as lyric voices. He explains, “I’m not looking for a certain ‘kind’ of voice. It has to do with looking up in a performance or an audition and seeing the involvement on the face of whoever it is. That shines through, always.” Boston Pops conductor, Keith Lockhart, recently gave support to that claim when he said, "It's axiomatic at Symphony Hall that if you want the audience to love you, get the TFC involved."

John Oliver still does a bit of vocal coaching these days and he looks for the same qualities in his students. “I’m talking about the shape of the musical phrase, the connection to the lyric. For example; the dynamics tell us to get louder and softer. But, why do they tell us to get louder and softer? Does the singer have a sense of ‘Why?’ I think a lot of singers don’t realize this. There’s no way to fake it and there’s no way to learn it. You either have it or you don’t and it develops as you get older.”

“The world is full of people with good, reliable technique these days. At this stage in my life, a singer must have a musical personality and a relationship to the music. And you can always tell, when somebody stands up to sing, what their relationship to the music is. Whether it’s a struggle for them; whether it’s something they’re just playing with; or whether it’s something they deeply respond to: You can always tell. For me, that’s the final ticket item.”

The TFC is, famously, a strictly volunteer chorus but, as many BSR subscribers will confirm, volunteer doesn’t mean amateur. This is a highly trained ensemble with many demands made on them. They’re supposed to know the notes and the pitches and be familiar with the language before walking in the door for the first rehearsal. Nobody teaches notes. The basic things are all supposed to happen ahead of time. What that does, Oliver explains, is enable them to start at a very high level of music making and proceed from there. He says, “Nobody, hopefully, gets bored. More and more of the people that seek that high level of challenge come out. Over the years, those people who expect to be eased through the early rehearsals have disappeared. And the people who want to start with the knowledge of the music on their own and see how far we can take it from there, that’s the kind of people that come now.”

The memorization of difficult musical scores is a ‘given’ for TFC members. We asked Mr. Oliver how he came to the decision to require the chorus to memorize the scores. He surprised us by his answer: “I don’t see it as something I’ve demanded. I see it as something that’s evolved. I see it as something that the better singers, through the years, have asked for. And gradually they have won out.” The first time the scores had to be memorized was in 1982, for a performance of ‘Tosca’. The lights were out, so there was no choice. Other operas came along, then much longer and more complex works like Honegger’s ‘Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher’ and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Now 95 percent of what they do is memorized
We asked Mr. Oliver how he prepared for a given work that will ultimately be conducted by someone else. Did he discuss or prepare a composition with other choral conductors? No, he doesn’t. “I have no contact with other choral conductors and I never have. I remember a crucial moment in my development, one of those moments where a youngster says to himself, ‘I’ve got to conquer this problem’. I had, until I was 25 or 26, always relied on the piano to learn scores because I was a decent pianist. But at some point I realized I wasn’t hearing the scores in my inner ear from the piano the way they sound. For example; the woodwind choir, or the strings, don’t sound anything like a piano. I decided I had to break this habit. I realized that I had to learn to hear directly from the score.”

“One whole season – it was the first time I was going to have a large orchestra in front of me – I practically had to chain myself to my desk to learn the scores, to not go near the piano. I think the program was the Kodaly ‘Te Deum’, the Brahms ‘Nänie’, and the Dvorak ‘Te Deum’. I practically had to board up the music room so I wouldn’t go to the piano. Once that year had passed, I never went near the piano again.

Still, we thought, it must be a source of frustration when a conductor makes choices that differ from the way the chorus has been prepared. “In the 20 years I was on the faculty of the Tanglewood Music Center (1970-1990), when we attended auditions together, no one really disagreed about who was talented. It’s the same principle here. The notes, the information you need, is all on the page. Whether it’s Jimmy or Colin or Rafael or Klaus, or any great conductor, it usually is no different. Very few people disagree on the most basic things.”

As an example of this, he gave a small look into his world. “The week of a performance, there is a piano rehearsal that the conductor conducts. That’s followed by the orchestra rehearsal. It’s the conductor’s first meeting with the chorus after I’ve had the preliminary three or four rehearsals. Jimmy (Levine) usually likes me to conduct – this is something that I’ve never experienced in my professional life before – and he sits to the side. This is partly to help him to assess what is going on. Now, if you think of the pieces I’ve done with him – the ‘Missa Solemnis’, ‘Moses und Aron’ from beginning to end – that I’ve conducted in the piano rehearsal; he gives refinements and corrections, but almost never disagrees with the tempi, for example. That is generally true.”

We were curious about how repertoire was chosen for the TFC and to what extent John Oliver influences the choices. He modestly claims not to have too much effect on such decisions. Rather, there may be discussions of a general nature with one conductor or another that may bear fruit in a season or two. But could it be more than coincidence that programming such as next year’s Dream of Gerontius by Elgar, with Colin Davis conducting (January 2008), or last season’s, Die Meistersinger at Tanglewood, with Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, were scheduled following some late-night dinners with John Oliver?

John Oliver continues to conduct, in performance, regularly. He particularly enjoys having the chance to present his ‘Prelude’ concerts each year during the Tanglewood season. “I’m perfectly happy at this stage in my life to take the 30 to 60 of the best singers of the TFC, which are about as good as you can get anywhere, and do my very eclectic prelude concerts once a year. It’s a great reward and privilege doing it in Ozawa Hall and taking it to Europe when we go there.” He’s had some experience, too, conducting other choruses and orchestras outside of the region. “But,” he says, “why should I bother? The TFC, the BSO, Symphony Hall, are all so much better.”

After 40 years of conducting and studying scores, what new challenges does John Oliver face and what would he like to have the chance to work on? This season’s (July) ‘Don Carlo’ is new, as is Berlioz’ ‘Les Troyens’, coming in April, 2008. In fact, there is much in the realm of opera that he would enjoy tackling. Also new next season (Feb/Mar 2008) is William Bolcom’s Eight Symphony, a world premiere.

Of the works he’s not yet done, two come to mind. “It may not be the greatest piece in the world structurally, but the Dvorak Requiem is extremely beautiful. Also, Bartok’s Cantata Profana (The Nine Enchanted Stags), is profound; a most important piece.”

The challenge of working with John Oliver brings its own rewards for many; he has a well-earned reputation for settling for nothing but the best. “I learned early in my life that the answer to many of the problems when dealing with groups of people is not to go along with the medium level, the mediocre, but to raise the bar and let the chips fall where they may. For the last 37 years I’ve been finding ways to raise that bar. I wouldn’t say it was a diabolical plan that I started out with; “This is the way we’re going to evolve the TFC.” But it had been part of my early training, and also my instinct about dealing with people, to demand from them. And the more you demand of people, the more they come up to that level.”


Keith Lockhart, conductor
Wednesday, June 13, 8:00 PM
Thursday, June 14, 8:00: PM
Friday, June 15, 8:00 PM
Symphony Hall, Boston, MA
Ticket Price(s): $18.00 - $85.00
(concert performance)

Opening Night at Tanglewood
Mendelssohn: Overture and Incidental Music to A Midsummer Nights Dream
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 4
Women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus,
John Oliver, conductor
Heidi Grant Murphy, soprano
Kristine Jepson, mezzo-soprano
James Levine, conductor
Koussevitzky Music Shed
Ticket Price(s): $19.00 - $99.00
Friday, July 6, 8:30 PM

Mahler: Symphony No. 3
Stephanie Blythe, mezzo-soprano
Women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus,
John Oliver, conductor
The American Boychoir, Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, music director
James Levine, conductor
Koussevitzky Music Shed
Ticket Price(s): $19.00 - $99.00
Saturday, July 14, 8:30 PM

Prelude Concert
JOHN OLIVER, conductor
Britten: Five Flower Songs
Brahms: Opus 104 (Funf Gesange) and Opus 109 (Fest-und Gedenkspruche)
Pizzetti: Due Composizione
Poulenc: Sept Chansons
Bach: Singet den Herrn
Schoenberg: Frieda auf Erden
Ives: Psalms 24 and 67
Thompson: Alleluia
Seiji Ozawa Hall
Friday, July 27, 6:00 PM

Verdi: Don Carlo
Tanglewood Festival Chorus,
John Oliver, conductor
Patricia Racette, soprano (Elisabeth of Valois)
Luciana D'Intino, mezzo-soprano (Princess Eboli)
Johan Botha, tenor (Don Carlo, Infante of Spain)
_eljko Lu_i_, baritone (Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa)
James Morris, bass (Philip II, King of Spain)
Paata Burchuladze, bass (The Grand Inquisitor)
David Won, baritone (The Count of Lerma)
Jordan Bisch, bass (A Monk)
Vocal Fellows of the Tanglewood Music Center
Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
James Levine, conductor
Koussevitzky Music Shed
Ticket Price(s): $18.00 - $89.00
Saturday, July 28, 7:30 PM

Haydn Mass in Time of War
Mozart: Overture to The Marriage of Figaro
Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 9 in E-flat, K.271, Jeunehomme

Emanuel Ax, piano
Haydn: Mass in Time of War
Tanglewood Festival Chorus,
John Oliver, conductor
Sally Matthews, soprano
Paula Murrihy, mezzo-soprano
Eric Cutler, tenor
Dietrich Henschel, bass-baritone
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, conductor
Koussevitzky Music Shed
Ticket Price(s): $18.00 - $89.00
Sunday, August 12, 2:30 PM

Berlioz La Damnation de Faust
Tanglewood Festival Chorus,
John Oliver, conductor
Yvonne Naef, mezzo-soprano (Marguerite)
Marcello Giordani, tenor (Faust)
José van Dam, baritone (Méphistophélès)
Patrick Carfizzi, bass-baritone (Brander)
PALS Children's Chorus, Jennifer Kane, Artistic Director
James Levine, conductor
Koussevitzky Music Shed
Ticket Price(s): $18.00 - $89.00
Saturday, August 18, 8:30 PM

Beethoven Symphony No. 9
Tanglewood Festival Chorus,
John Oliver, conductor
Melanie Diener, soprano
Mary Phillips, mezzo-soprano
Marcus Haddock, tenor
Raymond Aceto, bass
Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, conductor
Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra
Koussevitzky Music Shed
Ticket Price(s): $19.00 - $99.00
Sunday, August 19, 2:30 PM

Lucerne, Switzerland – Kultur und Kongresszentrum Luzern
Tuesday, August 28
Berlioz: Damnation of Faust

Trier, Germany
Wednesday, August 29
Prelude Concert

Essen, Germany – Philharmonie Essen
Friday, August 31
Berlioz: Damnation of Faust
Saturday, September 1
Prelude Concert

Paris, France – Grosse Musikhalle
Tuesday, September 4
Berlioz: Damnation of Faust

London, England – Royal Albert Hall
Thursday, September 6
Berlioz: Damnation of Faust



John Oliver Biography:

Tanglewood Festival Chorus History:

Tanglewood Schedule:

Boston Symphony Orchestra/Tanglewood: