Rambling About Tanglewood: BSO chorus master John Oliver prepares for a change in tempo

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LENOX — Two big farewells will take place Sunday at Tanglewood. At a joint concert, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra will conclude their seasons.

While the Beethoven Ninth hangs in the air, another farewell will be occurring, one intricately involved with the performance of the Ninth — and, previously, 200 works in 1,000 BSO performances in Boston and the Berkshires. John Oliver will retire after 46 years as founder and director of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

Henceforth, you can find him at his home on East Road in Alford, working in his three greenhouses and on three books he's writing. He won't miss "schlepping" to Boston for rehearsals and concerts, he says. But he will miss his chorus, his "family."

These final Tanglewood weeks have been busy ones for Oliver and his singers. They had to prepare and sing in Mahler's Eighth Symphony under Andris Nelsons last Saturday, and now they raise their voices, 120 strong, in the "Ode to Joy" in the BSO's annual closing-day Beethoven Ninth. They will also present their annual Prelude concert Friday night.

"Life is going to slow down," says Oliver, now 76. "I mean, when I was 40 years old, I ran — " but wait a moment while he ticks off the list: the TMC vocal program; the Festival Chorus; the chamber-sized John Oliver Chorale, and the choruses and a teaching load at MIT, plus 20 private students.

"I don't know who that person was," he says, looking back in disbelief. "He had a lot of energy."

Honors are flowing Oliver's way. He's receiving the Tanglewood Medal, whose only other recipient is BSO music director laureate Seiji Ozawa. He's been named a TMC Master Teacher, an honor he shares with his friend Phyllis Curtin, who this year added an "emerita" to the title. And he'll return to the TMC next summer as a faculty member with the title of Tanglewood Festival Chorus Founder and Director Laureate.

So he now has more time for his beloved gardens and greenhouses, which others have been tending for him. The books? They're a Southern gothic novel (if you can believe that," he declares), a book of quotations from conductors, including himself, and a memoir.

The occasionally sharp-tongued conductor's BSO affiliation began in 1964 when he brought in a boy choir for a recording of excerpts from Berg's Wozzeck" under Erich Leinsdorf. The BSO in those days employed various Boston-based adult choruses. A few years after "Wozzeck," Oliver told management the BSO needed a chorus of its own.

And guess who was the man to form it.

"To my great astonishment — I'm even more astonished now than I was then, because then I was young and thought I could do anything — they agreed to try it out," he recalled over the course of two interviews.

In 1970, after a trial year, Oliver had his Tanglewood Festival Chorus. (He chose the name, he said, "because I did not want to see in print 'The Boston Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.' ") The roster carries about 300 members from all over New England, about 120 of whom sing in a typical performance. He's the unseen man. He prepares the chorus for other conductors and turns it over to them.

Oliver's Tanglewood commitment goes back even further. In 1963 and 1964, he was a student in the first years of soprano Curtin's master classes. A friendship and TMC faculty partnership blossomed. Because of health problems, Curtin retired this year after a 51-year run as a Tanglewood star and magnet for students.

Oliver visits her weekly in her Great Barrington home.

"Phyllis and I know each other a long time," he recalls. "And you know, when you're young, you have issues always with people. You know, you're building a career and you say, 'No I don't think it should be done that way, I think it should be done this way,' and all those kinds of things. But as you get old, the wonderful thing is that you love everything you did together and all that said stuff. She's been a great friend."

Oliver regrets that sacred works like Bach's "St. Matthew Passion," which he once conducted at Tanglewood when Ozawa fell ill just before a BSO performance, have fallen out of the Tanglewood repertoire. He has given Nelsons a list of neglected choral masterworks, such as the Dvorak Requiem, that ought to be on programs. He himself had conducted most of the choral masterworks by the age of 30, he says.

As for his teaching next summer, he says the brass asked him to "talk to" student conductors and composers.

"I was very flip about it. And I said, 'Good, they need a good talking-to!' " He laughs. He'll have plenty to talk about.

This week at Tanglewood...

• Boston Cello Quartet — Yo-Yo Ma with Mike Block, Monika Leskovar and Giovanni Sollima: 8 p.m. tonight Ozawa Hall. "A Distant Mirror" — Music of the late 16th- and early 17th centuries

• Boston Symphony Orchestra with Andris Nelsons, conductor, and Christian Tetzlaff, violin: 8:30 p.m. Friday. Shed. Mendelssohn — Violin Concerto; Mahler — Symphony No. 5

• Boston Symphony Orchestra with Andris Nelsons, conductor, and Kristin Opolais, soprano: 8:30 p.m. Saturday. Shed. Barber — Second Essay for Orchestra; Boito — "L'altra notte in fondo al mare" from "Mefistofele," Act III; Puccini — Intermezzo from "Manon Lescaut," Act III; Verdi — Willow Song and "Ave Maria" from "Otello," Act IV; R. Strauss — "Ein Heldenleben"

• Boston Symphony Orchestra with Andris Nelsons, conductor, and vocal soloists and Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver, conductor: 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Shed. Copland — Symphonic Ode; Beethoven — Symphony No. 9


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