All conductors shape musical performances without making a sound. But in his 45-year tenure with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, John Oliver shaped more than 1,000 performances without even being on the stage.
Mr. Oliver founded the BSO’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus in 1970 and led it until his retirement in August 2015. In some ways, his preparation of the singers away from the public eye — for performances that ultimately took place under the batons of Seiji Ozawa, Bernard Haitink, Sir Colin Davis, Leonard Bernstein, James Levine, Andris Nelsons, and so many others — made him Symphony Hall’s ultimate behind-the-scenes artistic figure.
Yet for the thousands of choristers who worked with him over the years, he was the essence of their connection to the BSO, a galvanizing figure who took an assemblage of musically passionate volunteer singers — among them lawyers, doctors, engineers, teachers, psychiatrists, grandparents, and retirees — and forged one of the most respected symphonic choruses in the country.
Mr. Oliver died Wednesday in Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington after a long illness. He was 78 and lived in Alford.
“Few people in the 137-year history of the Boston Symphony Orchestra dedicated so many years of their creative lives to the orchestra as John Oliver during his 45-year tenure,” Mark Volpe, the BSO’s managing director, said in a statement. “John’s loss is deeply felt by countless music fans and thousands of singers who have been personally moved by his profound musicianship, gregarious personality, and legendary sense of humor. There are no adequate words to describe how much he will be missed.”
Over the years, Mr. Oliver worked with some 2,200 choristers, whom he prepared for performances at Tanglewood, Symphony Hall, and Carnegie Hall, as well as for tours to Europe and Asia. The chorus under his watch sang more than 200 different works and was represented on more than 40 commercial recordings.
A BSO Classics disc with the Tanglewood chorus joining the BSO in Ravel’s complete “Daphnis et Chloé,” under the baton of Levine, won a Grammy in 2009 for best orchestral performance. Mr. Oliver also was awarded the BSO’s Tanglewood Medal at the conclusion of Tanglewood’s 2015 season.
“He was a wonderful teacher, and he would not only work with us on the notes, but also on understanding the emotion behind the music,” said David Norris, a tenor who has sung with the ensemble for nearly four decades and currently chairs the Tanglewood Festival Chorus Committee. “The impact John had is really immeasurable. People who sing in the chorus give so many hours to the BSO organization. And frankly they would not have done that if not for the fact that John Oliver so enriched their lives.”
Outside of the BSO, Mr. Oliver served for a period as conductor of the Framingham Choral Society, and he taught and performed with students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston University. In 1977, he founded the John Oliver Chorale, which was devoted to masterworks of the literature, rarely encountered 20th century scores, and occasionally new music. In a 1993 review, Globe critic Richard Dyer praised the group’s “beautiful, full, impeccably tuned sound.”
“John Oliver was the most musically natural conductor imaginable,” said composer Scott Wheeler, whose “The Construction of Boston” was premiered in 1989 by the chorale. “Even when I wasn’t sure how exactly to pace things, he took over and thought like a composer, like a dramatist — in short like a first-class all-around musician.”
Mr. Oliver was born in Teaneck, N.J., though thanks to his father’s career as an executive with General Motors he moved frequently as a child. While attending parochial school in Wisconsin, he was introduced to the organ. Soon thereafter he began conducting church choirs.
After pursuing an undergraduate degree at the University of Notre Dame, Mr. Oliver moved to New England and accepted a summer job as a singing waiter at a restaurant in Cohasset. He ended up studying choral conducting at New England Conservatory, where he worked with Lorna Cooke deVaron.
Mr. Oliver began his BSO connection at 24, when on short notice he prepared the Sacred Heart Boychoir of Roslindale for its role in a performance of excerpts from Berg’s opera “Wozzeck” under the baton of Erich Leinsdorf. By 1970, Mr. Oliver was working at Tanglewood and began discussions with the administration about forming a standing chorus under the BSO’s own auspices. In earlier years, the BSO had tapped different local ensembles when a chorus was needed, including the Chorus pro Musica, the Harvard Glee Club, and the Berkshire Chorus.
The Tanglewood chorus’s debut came in April 1970 and not long afterward, during the tenure of William Steinberg, the group established itself as an essential part of the BSO’s year-round organization. “I was very young, and anything is possible when you’re very young,” Mr. Oliver told the Globe when he retired. “The chorus is now like my family.”
In a previous Globe interview, he reflected on those early years and the group’s evolution. “At the beginning, the chorus sounded more youthful than it does today because it was,” he said. “Many of our members have grown up with the chorus, and today it makes a richer and a more brilliant sound.
“And of course I am a different performer from who I was 20 years ago. In the beginning, I was interested in precision more than in anything else; precision is a fault of youth. By now, habits of precision are built into the work of the chorus, and I have a much bigger vocabulary to use in asking for colors, textures, atmospheres, different ways to phrase,’’ he said. “These things are more important than precision, and they can help lead us into what the music means, what it is about. In our very best performances, I feel, we transcend choral singing and become more like a Lieder singer exploring the union of poetry and music.”
For decades under Mr. Oliver’s leadership, one particularly notable aspect of the chorus’s profile was that the singers performed everything from memory, including choral works with texts in languages such as Polish and Hungarian. Norris, the longtime member, estimated that preparing these pieces could require up to 100 hours of individual work outside of the frequent group rehearsals.
Yet Mr. Oliver felt the investment paid off as singers could then watch the conductor instead of their own vocal scores. The conductor Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos “was ecstatic about that,” Mr. Oliver told the Globe. “He would say, ‘No other chorus in the world watches me like they do! It means I can take chances.’ ”
Mr. Oliver, who was also an avid cook and gardener, leaves no immediate family.
Services in the Berkshires will be private, and a memorial concert in the summer at Tanglewood will be announced.
Over the years, Mr. Oliver’s own top list of memorable performances included Britten’s “War Requiem” with Ozawa at Tanglewood, Elgar’s “The Dream of Gerontius” with Davis, and Beethoven’s “Missa Solemnis” with Bernstein.
“It’s been a fantastic journey,” he told the Globe in 2015. “And I feel that what we’ve built is something enormously essential. And I don’t think it will change much.”