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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Memorial Day weekend is here and arts lovers are anticipating summer music, theater and dance festivals. One of the best known is Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts. And every summer since 1970, the orchestra has performed with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.

Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN: 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.

Mr. JOHN OLIVER (Choral Conductor): And to my utter amazement now - I wasn't so amazed then, because I was just a brash young man but to my utter amazement now, they took up on it and they said: Go, form a chorus.

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SIMON: And 40 years later, John Oliver is still conducting that chorus.

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LUNDEN: The Tanglewood Festival Chorus with 280 members is the official year-round choir of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, performing in Boston, on tour and at Tanglewood every summer. And it's made up entirely of volunteers. Most live in the Boston area, but John Oliver says...

Mr. OLIVER: Now we have people that commute from Rhode Island and Maine and New Hampshire and Vermont - you know, it's astonishing how they come to sing in this chorus. And they drive, you know, all the way home after rehearsal, and it's amazing.

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Mr. OLIVER: They're all trained musicians. At this point we don't have anybody in the chorus that isn't trained in some instrument or some kind of music education. And I mean they do a million other things. They're psychiatrists and they're lawyers and we have the chief psychopharmacologist from (unintelligible) Hospital who sings in the baritone section.

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LUNDEN: 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, the lighting's fluorescent, but the room is filled with music and life.

Mr. OLIVER: So, once again, one, two.

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Mr. OLIVER: Good. That's good.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. OLIVER: Can you take that space out of there after (unintelligible)? Okay, one, two.

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LUNDEN: Nick Brown, who just graduated from Brandeis University, is one of the chorus's youngest members.

Mr. NICK BROWN: John's expectation of this group is different than, I think, a lot of groups. When you come to this rehearsal, if 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.

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LUNDEN: Most choirs perform while holding the score in front of them. John Oliver insists that his singers memorize the music for most performances.

Mr. BROWN: Memorization is not a trick. It internalizes the music for you. It makes the music somehow a part of your own physical being. 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.

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LUNDEN: The singers admit it's a lot of work. But they also love the social aspects of singing in the chorus. Several married couples are members. Kerri Kenney(ph) is a middle school music teacher. Her husband, Tom, is a software engineer.

Ms. KERRI KENNEY (Chorus Member): You know, couples go to dinner and a movie. For us it's we come and sing with the TFC. That's our date, whether it's rehearsal or performance. And it's enjoyable. We drive in together, we drive home together. Sometimes we still do dinner, but there's no movies usually for us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TOM KENNEY (Chorus Member): It gives us a lot of time driving in and driving back from the rehearsals and the performances where it's just us - no kids, no jobs, no nothing, no distractions.

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LUNDEN: Four times every summer, members of the chorus come to Lenox, Massachusetts for short residencies at Tanglewood. This is going to be the 27th year bass Timothy Lanagan has sung in the mountains.

Mr. TIMOTHY LANAGAN (Chorus Member): Tanglewood, I always tell people, is a lot like a summer music camp for grownups. You know, 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.

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LUNDEN: Alto Marjorie Folkman has been singing with the Tanglewood Festival Chorus for the past 30 years. She considers it her second family and says singing in the group is a labor of love.

Ms. MARJORIE FOLKMAN (Chorus Member): I've done performed this with tears running down my face because it was so wonderful. The whole experience was so wonderful. I've had experiences that I wish might've been better. But next time they were, or the next performance they were.

LUNDEN: And the next performance is July 9th, 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.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden.

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SIMON: You can hear recordings of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus at NPRmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Have a wonderful Memorial Day weekend. I'm Scott Simon.

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