The Boston Symphony Orchestra has named James Burton the new conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, and Burton is also assuming a newly created post as BSO choral director.
Burton, who was born in London, is only the second conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus; John Oliver (now conductor laureate) led it from its founding in 1970 to his retirement in 2015. Burton’s initial contract with the BSO begins immediately and runs through the end of the BSO’s 2021-22 season.
Burton is not a newcomer to Symphony Hall. His work first appeared on the stage 19 years ago, when he contributed orchestrations to Arlo Guthrie’s performance with the Boston Pops. The two collaborated for years, starting when Burton was a conducting master’s student at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University; at some concerts, Guthrie even called Burton to the stage to perform blues piano with him. “I was never sure if he was going to do it,” Burton said in an interview at Symphony Hall Wednesday, recalling the whirlwind shows with the Massachusetts folk favorite.
From Westminster Abbey boy chorister to Baroque operatic countertenor to orchestrator to choral director of such ensembles as the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, England, and the Schola Cantorum of Oxford, England, Burton is taking the latest step on a fascinating musical journey. This summer, he and his family will relocate from Oxford to Boston for his new post.
Burton has prepared the Tanglewood Festival Chorus for past performances, including the 2016 Tanglewood season-ending performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Burton also prepared the chorus for this week’s Bach Mass in B Minor, which will be conducted by BSO music director Andris Nelsons. “The TFC has the most incredible sense of purpose and pride in what they do,” Burton said. “They’re very, very present as people onstage.”
According to the BSO, Burton will prepare the TFC for performances with the BSO and Boston Pops, conduct the TFC in its own choral programs, and at times understudy Nelsons and guest conductors, stepping in when needed, for performances of major choral works. He will also consult on program planning, suggesting “new opportunities that would benefit the overall institution by encouraging a broader engagement with choral singing,” according to a BSO statement.
“Choral singing can play a great part in any institution like this,” Burton said, citing its potential to “reach people in slightly different ways.”
Burton is excited to make the hall he first entered almost two decades ago his musical home. “I am acutely aware that it’s not often you walk into a building, and you discover an attitude and a work ethic and a vibrancy which is all designed to make music the center of its focus. That’s what happens here,” he said, expressing his admiration for the BSO’s conductors, musicians, and staff. “It’s obviously a very prestigious institution, a world class orchestra, but that doesn’t happen unless the people who are here want the music to be great.”