John Oliver assumes his space
Program sketches of John Oliver, founder and director of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, speak of his tremendous accomplishments preparing the chorus for world-famous conductors of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and of non-orchestral choral concerts he himself has conducted. Nothing personal, just business.
But in his fascinating talk to donors Thursday, he gave a rare glimpse of his Wisconsin childhood, and prodigal talents at singing and piano (earning $200 a month in 1952 at age 11). Like other speakers in this series -- but unlike his usual self -- he spiked his professional history and accomplishments with revelatory anecdotes: Tuesdays and Saturdays, for example, he runs into the son of his mentor Erich Leinsdorf at the Alford dump. Like the Wisconsin tidbit, it shows a lot about Oliver if you turn the sentence over in a few ways.
The lively questions of Ben Schwartz, assistant artistic administrator (gawd what a title) hewed to the professional track, but John ran with each question in a way that showed his life at Tanglewood, directing the chorus he named, for more than 40 years. That is to say, Oliver knew Leinsdorf wel l-- never mind Seiji Ozawa -- and Charles Munch a little.
Those people are gone, and this summer the 40-year-old chorus performs a plethora of vocal concerts. (Tonight, July 16, Mozart's Requiem and Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, tomorrow, July 17, Mahler's Third Symphony.) With James Levine out of commission, his replacements look to Oliver for advice, technique and problem-solving. The once skinny young guy with black curly hair has become, like the hand that rocks the cradle, a ruling presence in the Tanglewood world.
Maybe the reason he acknowledged me in yesterday's audience was to head off my possible jumping up to proclaim, "I was IN in that 1970 concert," or "I REMEMBER when Seiji conducted the (whatever)." Or maybe Oliver has finally mellowed out and was, as memorably suggested by Mae West, just glad to see me.
I'll always be glad to see John Oliver, I'll tell you that. What a career in choral music, what concentrated thought, devotion, success. I shake my head in awe.
Photo of John Oliver by Michael Lutch