There comes a moment during the applause after just about every performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus when its founding conductor, John Oliver, walks onto the stage, flicks a finger or two upward, and raises the entire chorus to its feet. Then as if on cue, the applause itself always jumps up several notches. This is a chorus deeply appreciated by its city.
Last week, Oliver, who launched the TFC in 1970 and has conducted it ever since, bowed with his chorus for last time in Symphony Hall. The BSO has announced that Oliver will be stepping down from his current post at the end of this coming summer at Tanglewood.
“It’s been a fantastic journey,” said Oliver by phone on Monday. “And I feel that what we’ve built is something enormously essential.”
The BSO’s managing director Mark Volpe concurred. “He created an incredible entity that is very much a part of the fabric of the Boston Symphony,” said Volpe. “It’s a culture and community unto itself. And he’s integrated it with all of our activities. I can only say great things about what John has accomplished, and certainly that legacy will live for generations to come.”
Over the course of his 46 years with the TFC, Oliver has prepared the acclaimed chorus for more than 1,000 performances, and dozens of recordings, with the BSO. He has worked closely with five BSO music directors: Erich Leinsdorf, William Steinberg, Seiji Ozawa, James Levine, and Andris Nelsons. This summer, he will become the second recipient to date (after Ozawa) of the Tanglewood Medal. The following summer, he will assume the role of Master Teacher Chair at the Tanglewood Music Center, and in that capacity, he will present a series of master classes.
The TFC itself is an all-volunteer chorus whose members routinely perform lengthy scores from memory, a reflection of a commitment that is also audible in the group’s sound. In his own letter sent on Monday afternoon to the TFC informing the singers of his decision to step down, Oliver praised this very aspect of his singers’ investment. “[Y]ou’ve chosen to participate in this group because of your love of music and for no other reason,” he wrote, “and the spine of what has made this fantastic organization possible is exactly that, your devotion to this wonderful art. . .”
Oliver has some major items still on his schedule for this summer, including preparing the chorus for its performances of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, music from Puccini’s “Tosca” and, of course, the season-closing performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.Jeremy Eichler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.