Music

Harsh notes amid purge of BSO’s chorus

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus performing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in August 2017. Front row, from right: New chorus conductor James Burton, BSO music director Andris Nelsons, and singers Kristine Opolais and Bryn Terfel.
Hilary Scott
The Tanglewood Festival Chorus performing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in August 2017. Front row, from right: New chorus conductor James Burton, BSO music director Andris Nelsons, and singers Kristine Opolais and Bryn Terfel.

For decades, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s all-volunteer group of singers, dazzled audiences with its performances, delivering masterful renditions of intricate scores in German, Czech, Latin, and French — almost always from memory.

But discordant notes are sounding after the chorus’s new conductor, James Burton, unceremoniously decimated its ranks, forcing out a large swath of singers, including many of the group’s most senior members.

Burton, named TFC conductor and BSO choral director last year, imposed what singers called a daunting re-audition process, with tests that included advanced music theory.

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According to several members who’ve tabulated the losses, roughly 70 choristers have resigned, retired, or been cut amid a recent re-audition cycle — the first of several Burton has planned for the ensemble’s nearly 300 members.

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The BSO, which called the auditions “a private, internal matter, with each audition handled with the utmost confidentiality,” declined to give an official tally of all the singers who are leaving but said that 39 had decided to “step down” instead of auditioning.

The purge has come as a jolt to choristers, many of whom have sung with the ensemble for decades, sacrificing hundreds of hours each year to rehearse and perform. In more than a dozen interviews, current and former chorus members say their ouster was made all the more painful by the way they learned they’d been cut: an unsigned form letter from the BSO chorus manager.

James Burton, the Tanglewood Festival chorus conductor and Boston Symphony Orchestra choral director, at Symphony Hall.
Michael Blanchard
James Burton, the Tanglewood Festival chorus conductor and Boston Symphony Orchestra choral director, at Symphony Hall.

“[Burton] can populate this chorus with goats if he wants to, no one is debating that, but the way it’s been done is really unconscionable,” said Deirdre Michael, who resigned from the chorus earlier this month, calling the situation a “bloodbath.” “He was very charming when he was the candidate for this job. Everyone was excited, but we auditioned candidate Jekyll and got Mr. Hyde.”

The BSO told the Globe the form letters were sent by “administrative mistake” and referred to a letter BSO artistic administrator Tony Fogg sent the chorus on June 21.

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“I regret that a number of singers have expressed that they feel our communication to those who did not pass the audition was handled insensitively,” wrote Fogg. “I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to anyone who felt that way.”

Founded by the late John Oliver in 1970, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus has long been considered one of the greatest symphonic choruses in the country, garnering critical acclaim during its more than 1,000 concert performances. Its singers, who perform in the Berkshires and Boston with the BSO and Boston Pops, have toured Europe and Asia and were featured on a BSO recording that won a 2009 Grammy.

The chorus, which Oliver led until his retirement in 2015, has also served as a beloved artistic and social home for its members, many of whom habitually forgo vacations and use personal days to participate, and several of whom travel from homes outside Massachusetts.

“All my life decisions in terms of staying here — every major life event — was [influenced by] the TFC,” said Sarah Daniello, who resigned earlier this month after 35 years with the chorus. “With [Oliver] we’d get roaring applause because we sang from our hearts. . . . [Burton] is a very corporate technician, and at this point we get polite applause.”

Current and former members say the form letters they received are part of a wider pattern of disrespect under Burton, whom choristers described as “rude,” “condescending,” and creating a “toxic” environment.

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“[Burton’s] been demanding in very unpleasant ways: snarky and frequently rude and insulting,” said Melanie Salisbury, a 30-year veteran who was cut from the chorus earlier this month. “I’m devastated and heartbroken.”

Bill Brett / The Boston Globe
“We thought he brought the greatest potential to elevate our work,” said Stephen Owades (second from left) of James Burton, the new conductor. “We didn’t realize that would be without us.” With Owades, seen in 2006, are the chorus’s founding conductor John Oliver and fellow singers Maisie Bennett and Joan Sherman.

In an e-mail through a spokeswoman, Burton expressed sympathy with those who are leaving, acknowledging that the re-audition process is “inherently fraught with difficulty.”

“Perhaps there is little anyone can say to comfort someone who is experiencing disappointment like this,” Burton said of those being asked to step down, adding that he strives “to act professionally and respectfully towards musicians I have the privilege to work with.”

“I feel very close to the chorus over this first year and a half as their conductor,” wrote Burton. “Though we are still in the early period of getting to know each other, going forward, I’m sure we all share the same goals — to take the ensemble to ever higher levels of performance as the Boston Symphony’s premiere chorus.”

Several singers acknowledged that the chorus had lost some of its luster in recent years, as Oliver, who died last April, suffered declining health in advance of his 2015 retirement — a period of slow diminishment followed by a nearly two-year search for a successor.

The ensemble’s slide has not gone unnoticed. Writing in 2016, Globe critic Jeremy Eichler noted that while the chorus was “still capable of delighting,” it also exhibited “an unevenness” and “more than a few patchy moments.”

In a statement this week, the BSO acknowledged the chorus has struggled in recent years. “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,” the symphony’s statement read in part. “On some level, this was the case with the TFC.”

Many singers said they cheered when Burton was selected to the lead the ensemble, adding they were impressed during his trial concerts by the Englishman’s warm manner and extensive resume leading some of England’s finest ensembles.

“We thought he brought the greatest potential to elevate our work,” said Stephen Owades, a founding member who was cut earlier this month. “We didn’t realize that would be without us.”

Stanley Hudson, who has performed with the chorus for more than 35 years, said Burton had initially spoken of hosting voice classes to help some singers improve.

“It was clear he wanted to do some other things with the chorus,” said Hudson, who was also cut earlier this month. “It was a different message than ‘We’re going to start over,’ which is what it looks like he’s going to do.”

In late March, the chorus leadership announced the entire chorus would be re-auditioned on a three-year rotation — a more formal process than before. Then on April 9, the first group of 100 were informed their re-auditions would take place the following month.

“There was panic,” said Michael, who often commuted to rehearsals from Albany, N.Y. “We’ve never been given that short a time to prepare.”

The compressed time frame became even more challenging, many choristers said, after Oliver’s death on April 11.

“He had no empathy for what people are feeling with John Oliver dying,” said Henry Lussier, who resigned this spring after 46 years with the chorus. “[Oliver] gave people wings. He made you feel like anything was possible. [Burton] likes to make people feel like they’re on quicksand.”

John Oliver was awarded the Tanglewood Medal of Honor in August 2015 before the BSO’s performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, his last as the TFC conductor
Hilary Scott
John Oliver was awarded the Tanglewood Medal of Honor in August 2015 before the BSO’s performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, his last as the TFC conductor

In its statement, the BSO said the audition process, which ran into early June, was outlined in “great detail.”

“Singers for the first round of auditions had at least four weeks to prepare, and in our experience that is a fair and reasonable amount of time,” the symphony’s statement read in part. “None of the singers selected mentioned at the time that four weeks was not enough time to prepare for the audition.”

The BSO said this first round of auditions were for singers Burton “felt he needed to hear first regarding their vocal technique and musicianship.”

“This approach would account for the greater numbers of singers who did not pass this first round of auditions,” the statement said. “[W]e anticipate that future auditions will result in greater numbers of singers passing the audition.”

Some singers left even before the auditions. Jiahao Chen, for example, said Burton forcefully derided him while running through the score of Berlioz’s “The Damnation of Faust.” Chen, who was commuting from New York for rehearsals, said he’d previously advised the chorus’s leadership he had work conflicts on several rehearsal dates, but they had kept him on the roster.

“He stopped and recited every single mistake I had made back to me, along with reprimands about the mistakes being those that had been brought up during rehearsal,” Chen said via e-mail. “I still fail to see what the point of that exercise was other than some perverse form of ritual humiliation.”

The BSO declined to discuss the allegations of specific choristers, noting that it “has protocols in place for employees and volunteers who have a complaint or issue about anything concerning their activities with the organization.”

It also provided a quote from Sarah Telford, a chorus member who praised Burton as a “phenomenal musician, a gifted communicator, and a choral singer’s dream” and said that rehearsals with him are “intense, exhilarating, and fun.”

Meanwhile the chorus — including many of those who have been cut — is expected to perform at Tanglewood, and an end-of-season event is planned for departing choristers that Burton said is meant to “celebrate their service.”

“A lot of people I’ve talked to want nothing to do with it,” said Hudson. “They call it the walk of shame.”

Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay