Tanglewood Festival Chorus undergoing major transformation

James Burton, choral director of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, "has introduced a formal and thorough review of the TFC audition process, following a period of time when there was a less formal process in place," according to an email from Boston Symphony Orchestra leaders.

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which gets many of the most enthusiastic audience ovations during the Boston Symphony Orchestra's summer season, is undergoing a major transformation under its conductor, BSO Choral Director James Burton.

About 30 of the all-volunteer chorus' 286 members have been cut from the organization as of summer's end, after rigorous auditions last month, according to a half-dozen singers interviewed by The Eagle. About 40 to 45 choristers have chosen to withdraw rather than re-audition, or for other personal reasons.

Of the estimated 60 remaining members who were asked, and then agreed, to be auditioned by Burton this spring, only 15 were granted full three-year memberships, several chorus members stated. Fifteen others have been given one- or two-year probationary memberships, subject to re-auditioning next year.

BSO management declined to specify how many singers were cut or given provisional commitments, but it defended the audition outcome as a move to maintain and enhance the chorus' quality. But administrators acknowledged that of 89 people auditioned over the past few months, 27 were invited to join the chorus.

"The Tanglewood Festival Chorus has an extraordinary tradition as the Boston Symphony Orchestra's acclaimed choir," BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. "We are all so very fortunate to have an all-volunteer choir on the level of the TFC. As the chorus of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, it must always strive to constantly reach and surpass the highest standards of our field in order to bring our wonderful audiences, along with the supreme musicians of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the most inspiring and uplifting experiences possible."

"It is most definitely this unrelenting and persistent pursuit of excellence that defines the greatest orchestras and choruses across the country and around the globe," Nelsons added. "We are truly blessed to have such a fine conductor as James Burton leading the chorus into their next era of artistic achievement and accomplishment and building upon the great 45-year legacy of John Oliver."

Burton was appointed in February 2017 to succeed Oliver, who formed the chorus in 1970, retired in 2015 and died last April.

As word spread of what some choristers described as "a purge," members expressed dismay on social media, including a private Facebook page.

"I was among those purged," said Stephen Owades, an original member of the chorus. He described a letter sent by Burton as "a huge error" because, as he perceived it, the 105 singers were told that their membership would end after this summer's Tanglewood season and that if they wished to continue, they would be required to audition.

A copy of Burton's March 30 letter provided by the BSO stated that "all chorus members will receive an e-mail in the next couple of weeks which will detail the term of their individual membership from this point forward."

As Owades saw it, "the implication was that `you no longer have a place, you have to earn a new place.'"

In an interview, he acknowledged that, as the new director, "it would be perfectly reasonable for Burton to hear everyone and figure out whether people have kept up with the group's standards."

Owades acknowledged that before his audition, he felt that "if I were cut, I would be unhappy, but not aggrieved. If the goal is to have a younger-sounding, lighter-voiced group, I can see how some might not fit. And if the goal is to have members not question Burton's authority, I can see how others might have been cut."

"They are his decisions to make," he added. "It appears he was given a mandate to improve the chorus from what top people in the organization thought was a deteriorated state. Those people urged him to `fix the chorus.'"

"Since the auditions are considered a private, internal matter, with each audition handled with the utmost confidentiality, we cannot discuss the process or specific details of the results publicly," BSO leaders responded by e-mail to questions from The Eagle. "It is common practice for choirs of the scope, reputation and caliber of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus to hold regular auditions. Mr. Burton has introduced a formal and thorough review of the TFC audition process, following a period of time when there was a less formal process in place."

The statement noted that after preliminary "sing-in" sessions with each TFC member last fall and winter, Burton identified the group of singers he "felt he needed to hear first regarding their vocal technique and musicianship." They were scheduled for the first round of formal auditions in May, and "this approach would account for the greater numbers of singers who did not pass this first round; we anticipate that future auditions will result in greater numbers of singers passing the audition."

The joint statement, representing the combined views of Burton, BSO Managing Director Mark Volpe and Tony Fogg, BSO artistic administrator and director of Tanglewood, maintained that "the results of the audition are purely based on the evaluation of each individual audition, with the same exact standards applied to each individual. It was not based on any factor other than meeting the requirements of the audition."

According to the minutes of a Jan. 30 meeting with the chorus committee, shared with the entire membership in early February, Burton declared: "We have some fantastic singers, we have some who didn't sing particularly well during the `sing-ins,' and everything in between. There will be some kind of review before summer."

In its statement to The Eagle, the management group wrote that "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 throughout its history. On some level, this was the case with the TFC."

"The primary goal now for the Tanglewood Festival Chorus is to continue to build upon the extraordinary reputation established by the prestigious ensemble over the many decades since its founding by John [Oliver] in 1970," the statement continued. "Since James Burton's arrival in 2017, the BSO management and artistic leadership are very happy with the progress the chorus is making."

Fogg, in a recent letter to the singers, pointed out that "change is always expected as new eras begin, and James has been in constant contact and discussion with me and senior colleagues, as well as our singers, as to how his plans to develop the chorus would unfold going forward. A re-audition process was, inevitably, going to be part of this plan, as is so often the case when a new director takes over any choir — let alone one of the reputation and caliber of the TFC."

In addition, the joint BSO statement explained, "Mr. Burton conferred with several respected choral directors/professionals in the Boston area to make sure the standards of the audition were in line with industry standards here in the U.S. There were no complaints following the auditions about the level of difficulty; each candidate was adjudicated on a wide variety of vocal and musical skills including a prepared choral extract, sight reading and traditional ear training exercises."

In a June 12 letter to the singers, Burton wrote that "choruses like ours have high artistic standards, and we must find the best ways to maintain them on both the individual and group levels."

"We all understand that for many, leaving the chorus may be difficult for a wide variety of reasons," he added, "but I think we all also acknowledge that no one can sing indefinitely in a group such as the TFC that aspires to the highest artistic standards."

The joint management statement explained that "Mr. Burton developed his audition protocol in discussion and consultation with Tony Fogg. [BSO Music Director] Andris Nelsons has given Mr. Burton his full support in developing the procedures and protocols necessary to maintain and further the highest artistic goals for the Tanglewood Festival Chorus."

In a comment provided to The Eagle, Burton wrote that "this process for any group is inherently fraught with difficulty, yet it is an absolutely necessary part of the protocol which needs to be in place to maintain the highest standards of performance so closely associated with our choir. Perhaps the most difficult part of this process, inevitably, is that singers who haven't been able to continue to maintain their vocal technique and musicianship, for any number of understandable reasons, will need to be asked to step down from the chorus."

"Everyone involved in this process has been sensitive to the disappointment that may be felt by anyone in this position," he continued. "In some instances, singers have been in the chorus for decades and this is a big change for them personally. I am acutely aware of this myself and have said so to the chorus."

But some singers voiced deep disappointment about the way the audition results were communicated to members. They asserted that choristers received unsigned letters, starting last Thursday, three weeks after the date they had been told the notifications would be sent. Those who were cut were told, in effect, that "their services were no longer needed," several members said in interviews.

"People don't know much about what really happened and why, that's the real issue," chorus member Peter Pulsifer said in a phone interview. He originally joined in 1983, left because of a job transfer out of state, and returned to the chorus in 2003. Pulsifer passed a recent audition and is a member at least through August 2020.

"Chorus members love the TFC and BSO, and they want the best for both organizations," he said. "People really like James Burton and have a great deal of artistic respect for him, but it has been difficult to understand his intentions. This was so unexpected. The chorus is a very close community; many of those cut have been active, widely liked and respected members."

Pulsifer reported that before two recent rehearsals, "James acknowledged that this was a difficult time and expressed his hope that we would get through it. But it doesn't seem to have cleared the air. Still, rehearsals have been well-attended and singers are working hard, as always."

Some choristers offered high praise for Burton's artistic leadership.

"Rehearsals are intense, exhilarating, and fun. And most of all, they are artistically satisfying — everything he asks of the group is in service of the style and beauty of the music," Sarah Telford said in a message provided by the BSO.

"It can be challenging at times, but you walk out of rehearsal a better singer and musician than you walked in," she added. "James Burton is a phenomenal musician, a gifted communicator and a choral singer's dream."

In his letter to members dated June 21, Fogg, the orchestra's artistic administrator and Tanglewood director, apologized for the concerns expressed by some singers.

"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," he wrote. "I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to anyone who felt that way. We are committed to considering seriously any feedback we receive from chorus members about this process going forward, though, in practice, the BSO does not respond to anonymous comments."

The BSO is planning a ceremony at the end of the summer to recognize members who are leaving, Fogg noted, and the orchestra also is considering establishing an alumni group.

"I think those are wonderful ideas," chorus member Pulsifer said. "I only hope that those plans are not overshadowed by the current unpleasantness."

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.