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Choral History

They sing with the Boston Pops, and their voices are heard around the world

John Oliver, the invisible hand behind the voices of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, surveys a silent Symphony Hall. Before a recent rehearsal, he leans over the edge of the empty stage like a diver before the leap. Oliver spies a pair of subscription seats in row three, which some 40 years ago was all that marked his little piece of the grand hall.

 

Today Oliver's musical territory spreads considerably wider. Since becoming the founding conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (TFC) in 1970, Oliver has shaped what began as 60 pick-up voices into a renowned chorus that is 250 members strong. "At Monday and Tuesday night rehearsals, for me at least, we're the only chorus in the world," Oliver says.

Such voices are best both heard and seen. But that's not always the case for the Tanglewood group, which has been the official chorus of the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops orchestras for the past three decades.

When the New England Patriots played in the Super Bowl in January 2002, uniformed police and firefighters sang "America the Beautiful" at halftime as Keith Lockhart conducted the Pops. The stadium and television audiences had no idea that this patriotic chorale was actually lip-synched to the Tanglewood chorus, which recorded the song at Symphony Hall a week before. Many of us have heard the Tanglewood chorus already, whether in the haunting choral soundtrack of "Saving Private Ryan" or the voices in "Close Encounters of the Third Kind." The group sang on Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River" soundtrack, recorded in the director's presence at Symphony Hall.

"Considering films and the many recordings made by the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops, the TFC is among the world's most listened to choruses, and in New England the most beloved," says Keith Lockhart, who will conduct the group in about 30 Holiday Pops concerts beginning Tuesday. "It's axiomatic at

Symphony Hall that if you want the audience to love you, get the TFC involved." Many of the 250-plus members shape their lives, careers, family duties, and vacations around their addiction to singing behind the Boston Symphony and Boston Pops orchestras, both in Boston during the concert season and summers in residence at Tanglewood. Aside from the satisfaction of making spectacular music, none is paid a dime.

"After food and sex, singing with the TFC is my other priority," says one 20-year veteran soprano. Her priorities reverse, she adds, during concert times.

Members come from all over New England, sometimes bunking with friends and relatives during rehearsals and concerts. The youngest member was a 17-year-old high school student who made the long schlep by boat and car from Martha's Vineyard. A senior mezzo-soprano, one of three original members from 1970 still singing with the group, says she is "far too close to 80 for comfort."

"I've tried to force myself to retire, but singing is more than just what I do: It's who I've become," says Maisy Bennett, a veteran of an estimated 900 performances in her 33 years onstage. Joan Sherman, who like Bennett sang under John Oliver's direction with the Framingham Chorus before the Tanglewood chorus was born in 1970, accepts the inevitable. "Some of us just can't go on forever, especially for sopranos," she says, tapping at her vocal chords.

Longevity, however, is no guarantee for a place in the choir. "A merciless meritocracy," is how another original member describes the process behind maintaining the chorus's quality. "It has to be that way, the music must always be first and foremost," says bass Stephen Owades, who sat out a few years when he was having problems with his voice.

Oliver reevaluates each chorus member at least every three years and conducts semiannual open auditions each fall and spring. "In the last 10 years especially,

it's astonishing how consistent the chorus has become, and I attribute that to the great musical intelligence of our singers, which is what I look for," says Oliver. Most come with years of instrumental training in addition to vocal expertise, Oliver says. "The younger people are generally more highly trained than in the past and bring a kind of vitality and enthusiasm, and that part of the recipe is invaluable." By the first rehearsal of a piece, many are "off book," the notes already committed to memory.

"We don't drill notes in rehearsal, which is not the case with some professional, paid choruses," says Oliver. "So I start with people who are very intelligent and motivated and come with a relationship with the music already -- their own relationship."

With rare exceptions, the chorus sings all performances strictly from memory. Including six programs with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Holiday Pops, Tanglewood in summer, special run-outs to Carnegie Hall and other guest appearances, the group will perform some 70 times this year. And for each member, it's all a labor of love. They even pay for their own Boston parking.

"What further distinguishes us from a paid chorus is we are here solely because we want to be here," says Don Sturdy, another senior member. "The chance to sing for the world's greatest conductors -- Steinberg, Bernstein, Davis, Ozawa, Haitink, and now Levine -- that's major motivation."

Each season varies, but Oliver auditions at least 150 prospective members every year, usually accepting less than 10 percent. About an equal percentage is pruned away, sometimes when the enormous time commitment for rehearsals, performances, and memorization of music collides with daily life.

Some members have been recruited in unconventional ways. The weekend before a successful surgery for kidney cancer, mezzo-soprano Barbara Naidich-Ehrmann spotted her surgeon in the first balcony as she took her place on the stage. Before entering the operating room two days later, she began to cajole him into an audition. Both doctor and patient now share a riser at Symphony Hall.

Bass Tom Wang drafted his two tenor sons, Andrew and Joseph. Soprano and New England Conservatory graduate student Laura Grande went the other direction, prevailing upon her father, Leon, a high school music teacher, to audition.

More than half of the roster has performed for more than a decade. Marriages have failed within its ranks; new nuptials have bloomed. For 20 years tenor David Norris has towed his camera, as if documenting his relatives' recitals. "We are very much like a big family," says tenor Kurt Walker, who along with his wife, Jennifer, has sung since 1997. "I am convinced that she went into labor with our twins onstage at Symphony Hall."

With so many voices, chorus manager Felicia Burrey often prompts the singing of "Happy Birthday" as a four-part prelude to many rehearsals. Deaths, too, have come -- few with more shared sorrow than that of Ted Hennessey, husband of soprano Melanie Salisbury, who died on American Airlines Flight 11 on Sept. 11, 2001. More than 100 chorus members, conducted by John Oliver, sang at his memorial service.

"The chorus makes that community connection because they are a part of that community, all working, all taking care of families," says Lockhart. "And that makes their contribution as volunteers all the more inspiring. Great orchestras cannot survive without that kind of total dedication."

The Tanglewood chorus' rise was not meteoric. It took up most of the 29-year tenure of Seiji Ozawa. In its first two seasons as the voices of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the fledgling chorus followed a long tradition of joining university choruses onstage. Not until the summer of 1971 at Tanglewood did the chorus stand alone on the risers, and since then it has not ceded the territory.

In its first overseas performances, the chorus joined Ozawa and the symphony on tour in Japan and Hong Kong in 1994. In 1998, singing from the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations, the chorus became the collective voice of the United States.

Ozawa conducted the Winter Olympics Orchestra with six choruses on five continents -- including the Tanglewood chorus -- all linked by satellite, in the choral movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony to close the inaugurating ceremonies of the Nagano Olympics.

In 2001, after the World Trade Center bombing, Ozawa brought the symphony and chorus to New York for the Berlioz Requiem.

In addition to making music with symphony, the chorus makes good business. Holiday Pops, with Lockhart, one of the most successful funding engines for the symphony, is in large part powered by the popularity of the chorus, which sends singers to about 30 concerts before Christmas. "I like to take my dad each year, and in all seriousness, I probably wouldn't without the chorus," says Cape Cod teacher Daniel Murphy. "But perhaps I'm partial since I'm a choral director." An informal poll of a dozen others in a long line to purchase Holiday Pops tickets hours before the box office opened in mid-November cited the chorus as one of the main reasons to wait in the cold.

Like the thousands of voices initiated under his baton, someday John Oliver will move on. The conductor's chair is endowed in perpetuity by the Alan J. and Suzanne W. Dworsky Fund for Voice and Chorus. But Oliver looks neither back nor ahead of that timeline.

"There is something to achieve and discover in every piece of music, and that occupies me 100 percent," he says. "I look always to the direct next performance; that's enough of a burden."

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