Memorial Day weekend is here, which means arts lovers are anticipating summer music, theater and dance festivals. One of the best known is in Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts. Every summer since 1970, the event has featured the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.
Forty years ago, a 28-year-old choral conductor named John Oliver went to the managers of the Boston Symphony with a proposal. He wanted to create a permanent chorus for the orchestra.
"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 says.
Four decades later, Oliver is still conducting that chorus. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, with 280 members, is the official year-round choir of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It performs in Boston, on tour and at Tanglewood every summer, and it's made up entirely of volunteers. Most live in the Boston area, but others commute farther.
"We have people that commute from Rhode Island and Maine and New Hampshire, Vermont. You know, it's astonishing how far they come to sing in this chorus," he says.
Oliver says all of the singers are trained musicians, but they're also psychiatrists, lawyers and more. The chorus rehearses in a bunker-like room in the bowels of the Boston Symphony's complex in Back Bay. The walls are cinder block, the carpeting is industrial and the lighting's fluorescent, but the room is filled with music and life.
Nick Brown, who just graduated from Brandeis University, is one of the chorus' youngest members.
"John's expectation of this group is different than, I think, a lot of groups," Brown says. "When you come to his rehearsal and you're not prepared, he will make it known that you're not prepared — not directly, but 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."
Most choirs perform while holding the score in front of them. John Oliver insists that his singers memorize the music for most performances.
"Memorization is not a trick. It internalizes the music for you; it makes the music, somehow, a part of your own physical being," Oliver says. "And you can express so much more like that. If you don't see a singer's face and you don't see the posture of a singer, the address of a singer to the audience, you're really not getting what a singer can deliver in music and what composers expected the singers to deliver."
Four times every summer, members of the chorus come to Lenox, Mass., for short residencies at Tanglewood. This will be the 27th year that bass Timothy Lanagan has sung in the mountains.
"Tanglewood, I always tell people, is like a summer music camp for grownups," he says. "You know that it has that component of fun, of being out on the Tanglewood campus and being in the Berkshires, which are just lovely and endlessly interesting and full of nature."
The chorus' next performance is July 9, the opening night at Tanglewood. In the meantime, to celebrate the Tanglewood Festival Chorus' 40th anniversary, a new CD of live performances has just been released.