John Oliver 1939-2018

April 12, 2018 at 3:39 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

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John Oliver, founder and longtime conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, died Wednesday night at Fairview Hospital in Barrington, Massachusetts after a long illness. He was 78.

In his 45 years as conductor, Oliver prepared the Tanglewood Festival Chorus for more than 1,000 performances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Symphony Hall, Tanglewood, and Carnegie Hall as well as for European and Asian concert tours.

He is credited on more than forty commercial recordings of the TFC and BSO under conductors Seiji Ozawa, Bernard Haitink, Sir Colin Davis, Leonard Bernstein, James Levine, Keith Lockhart, and John Williams. Oliver’s work with the ensemble drew high-profile nominations and awards. The TFC’s album of twentieth-century American choral works, recorded by Deutsche Grammophon, received a Grammy nomination in 1979. The BSO’s live recording of Ravel’s complete Daphnis et Chloé, released on the BSO Classics label and led by James Levine, won the Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance in 2009.

In 1970, Oliver formed the Tanglewood Festival Chorus after he approached the managers of the Boston Symphony Orchestra about creating a permanent vocal ensemble. The BSO up to that point had relied upon local choruses for performances of large-scale orchestral and choral works. “To my utter amazement now—I wasn’t so amazed then, because I was just a brash young man—they said, ‘Go! Form a chorus,’” Oliver recalled in 2010.

At the end of the 2015 Tanglewood season, when he stepped down as conductor of the TFC, Oliver was awarded the BSO’s Tanglewood Medal. He was also given the lifetime title of Founder and Conductor Laureate of the chorus.

Members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, a volunteer ensemble, recall Oliver’s exacting standards. Bass singer Nicholas Brown told NPR in 2010 that “he expects the highest level of preparation, because we are treated like a professional chorus. We are performing with one of the greatest orchestras in the world.” Oliver insisted that the singers memorize their music for most performances.

“John’s work with the TFC and the BSO over many decades will always be an important part of the orchestra’s great legacy and its mission to realize the very best in the classical music art form,” Andris Nelsons said in a statement. “Our hearts go out to all who loved and respected John, including his many fans throughout the BSO family and beyond in the music world at large.”

“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,” added BSO Managing Director Mark Volpe. “His enormous contribution to the BSO will be remembered far into the future, as the orchestra’s impressive accomplishments and vibrant tradition continue to be documented for music lovers today and for generations to come.

John Oliver was born in Teaneck, New Jersey in 1939 to Marie and Frank Oliver. His affiliation with the BSO began in 1964, when, aged twenty-four, he prepared the Sacred Heart Boychoir of Roslindale for the BSO’s performances and recording of selections from Berg’s Wozzeck,led by Erich Leinsdorf. Oliver also prepared the choir for the Leinsdorf-led performances and recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 in 1966.

Oliver made his BSO conducting debut in August 1985 at Tanglewood, where he led Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. He made his subscription debut in December of that same year in a performance of Bach’s Mass in B minor.

In addition to his work with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Oliver served as conductor of the Framingham Choral Society and as faculty member and director of the chorus at Boston University. For 32 years Oliver taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he conducted the Glee Club, Choral Society, Chamber Chorus, and Concert Choirs.

His own ensemble, the John Oliver Chorale, which he founded in 1977, specialized in the music of Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Stravinsky, and little-heard works by Carissimi. With that ensemble, Oliver also recorded the choral music of Ives, Elliot Carter, and Vincent Persichetti, among others.

Surviving Oliver are cousins Helene Carskaddin, Janet Domerski, Lyn Neandross, Jerilyn Simpson, and Nancy Sorge as well as close friends Joel Evans, James Soules, and Anthony St. George.

A private service commemorating Oliver’s life will take place this week in the Berkshires, and a concert in his memory is currently being scheduled for the upcoming Boston Symphony Orchestra Tanglewood season. Donations in Oliver’s memory can be made to the BSO’s Tanglewood Festival Chorus Fund.


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One Response to “John Oliver 1939-2018”

  1. Posted Apr 12, 2018 at 5:04 pm by Carson Kievman

    A wonderful man and musician, I really enjoyed working with him at Tanglewood. He will be missed by many.

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