Leonore Overture

collects the music and arts criticism of Keith Powers

Tension at Tanglewood: Tanglewood Festival Chorus, not always making a joyful noise

Tanglewood at dusk. Stu Rosner photograph

Tanglewood at dusk. Stu Rosner photograph

This Sunday evening at Tanglewood, current and former members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus will sing in a tribute concert to their late founder and director, John Oliver. Some may have in mind something Oliver once said, which was cited in his Boston Globe obituary this April. 

“I feel that what we’ve built is something enormously essential,” Oliver said of the chorus. “And I don’t think it will change much.” 

Those words seem ghoulishly ironic now, given the events of the past few months.

For dozens of singers, some who have been with the TFC for decades, this concert—along with two other performances this weekend—is the end of their tenure. Oliver’s successor James Burton, who himself passed through an audition process, stunned the TFC this spring with a wide-scale re-auditioning — and subsequent purge — of many longtime chorus members. 

One-third of the chorus — about 100 singers — were re-auditioned. No official numbers have been released, but it appears that about 30 choristers have been cut, and between 40 and 45 have resigned rather than go through the process. Over the next two years, the remainder of the singers will be re-auditioned as well.

Some who will sing this weekend are among those who have been shown the door. Some singers simply disliked Burton or the way the process was handled, and have resigned. Others have passed Burton’s audition, but remain mystified at the scope of the changes.

“We thought we were going to be part of something new and better with Burton,” says Stephen Owades, who has been with the chorus since its 1970 inception — 48 years — and was one of those singers who re-auditioned but was rejected.

“Almost everybody is going to be uncomfortable this weekend.”

Owades may be on the way out from the all-volunteer ensemble, and he’s understandably disappointed. But he remains level-headed about the process—one that he’s been through before.

“I’ve been re-auditioned eight or nine times over the years by John,” he says. Oliver did re-audition his ranks periodically, and he did let some singers go. But never on the scale that Burton is undertaking. And it’s certainly not because the TFC is an all-volunteer ensemble—almost every orchestra in the country uses volunteers, or employs other professional choruses. 

“Re-auditioning is certainly normal,” Owades says. “Your voice changes. There are certain choruses that have age limits — nobody over 55 can sing in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, for instance. All of that is perfectly reasonable.

“But this is not a case where all the old people were rounded up and shot,” Owades says. “There are young, brilliant singers who were cut, and there were some old singers who weren’t. The sheer scale of it tells me Burton had to make wholesale changes. And I assume he was backed up by the higher-ups in the orchestra.”

Why Burton is making the changes, and whether this does indeed come from other orchestra leaders — specifically music director Andris Nelsons — is at the heart of the chorus’s anxiety. The BSO has provided multiple responses, in the form of joint statements—comments that reflect the combined views of Burton, of managing director Mark Volpe, and of artistic administrator and Tanglewood director Tony Fogg.

In these documents the BSO reiterates that auditioning is normal for any chorus. And while there is a great deal of talk about striving for excellence, and the great work that has been done by the singers, the BSO does say that, “As is usual during a period of transition—no matter how hard people work to avoid it—there will be slippage in the quality of standard that the group has striven to maintain throughout its history. On some level, this was the case with the TFC.”

What kind of sound Burton wants to re-establish to return to those standards, remains a mystery to most. And many are reluctant to talk about that.

For two reasons: either the singers have passed his audition, and need to establish a new working relationship with Burton. Or they haven’t been auditioned yet, and don’t want to poison the well.

Some of the choristers do support Burton’s actions, and are praising his musicianship. Karen Wilcox said, “James Burton has exhibited grace, class and professionalism during the ongoing rehearsals. I empathize for those cut; but personal grief is no excuse for the vicious words used toward Mr. Burton and the BSO.” 

Virginia Bailey called Burton “a master of his craft,” praised his multiple new initiatives like the new Children’s Choir, and his rehearsal style. “I leave rehearsals exhausted but exhilarated from the full attention given to every detail.” Andrew Scoglio said Burton “is bringing the chorus to a new level of musicality and artistry.”

Those singers who have left, or been forced to leave, have been less complimentary. One chorister, who did not want to be identified, but who resigned without re-auditioning, said, “Burton can be brilliant, but at the same time insulting. I was surprised to see so many good people let go.”

A Boston Globe story quoted Dierdre Michael, who has resigned from the chorus, as saying that Burton “was very charming when he was the candidate for this job. Everyone was excited, but we auditioned candidate Jekyll and got Mr. Hyde.”

Peter Pulsifer, one of those who passed the recent round of auditions, told the Berkshire Eagle, “Chorus members love the TFC and BSO, and they want the best for both organizations. People really like James Burton and have a great deal of artistic respect for him, but it has been difficult to understand his intentions.”

And perhaps where those intentions are coming from, as well. Owades suggests strongly that some direction comes from Andris Nelsons.

“We don’t hear a lot of praise from Nelsons,” Owades says. “We always got feedback from Seiji, and from Levine, and from guest conductors. They would at least shake hands with the chorus when we were filing offstage after a major performance.

“We never got that from Nelsons. When he was first appointed, the chorus prepared and learned some Latvian songs, and sang them for Andris and Kristine (Nelsons and his then-wife, soprano Kristine Opolais, are from Latvia).

“Andris did not look happy,” Owades says, “and Kristine was visibly unhappy. Nelsons was heard by someone saying, ‘Is that what American choruses sound like?’ ”

The TFC performs three times this weekend—at Oliver’s memorial, and also in Saturday’s “La Bohème” and Sunday’s “Chichester Psalms.” After a rehearsal break this week, Owades says that he “is here to work,” as is everyone else—whether they are singing for the final time or not. But the weekend could be any more bittersweet for those chorus members who will sing for the final time.

“Rehearsals with James Burton now feel like dinner with the family, where the parents are getting divorced and are just staying together for the kids,” Owades says. “We used to talk to the conductor in rehearsal breaks, and laugh at his jokes. No more. There are fissures in the chorus, and it’s new and scary for us.”

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