When art is all business, passion takes a back seat

The world of classical music can be a torturous, cut-throat world.

One of the greatest festival choruses in the country — the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, which performs with the Boston Symphony — is in an uproar after a new boss required them to reaudition for their jobs and has purged dozens in what members are calling “a bloodbath.”

They’re volunteers, many of them from around the country, who donate hundreds of hours to practice and have to schedule family vacations and functions around the chorus’ schedule.

The new conductor — James Burton — also required the 300 members to take tests that included advanced music theory, the Boston Globe reports.

“[Burton] can populate this chorus with goats if he wants to, no one is debating that, but the way it’s been done is really unconscionable,” said Deirdre Michael, who resigned from the chorus earlier this month, calling the situation a “bloodbath.” “He was very charming when he was the candidate for this job. Everyone was excited, but we auditioned candidate Jekyll and got Mr. Hyde.”

Members say people learned they were ousted in the purge with unsigned form letters.

The Boston Symphony Orchestra boss says he’s sorry if that bothered them.

“All my life decisions in terms of staying here — every major life event — was [influenced by] the TFC,” said Sarah Daniello, who resigned earlier this month after 35 years with the chorus. “With [chorus founder John Oliver] we’d get roaring applause because we sang from our hearts. . . . [Burton] is a very corporate technician, and at this point we get polite applause.”

The chorus’ founder died in April. The new conductor wants to start over, the Globe says.

“He had no empathy for what people are feeling with John Oliver dying,” said Henry Lussier, who resigned this spring after 46 years with the chorus. “[Oliver] gave people wings. He made you feel like anything was possible. [Burton] likes to make people feel like they’re on quicksand.”

There’s more to singing than talent and technique. There’s passion, which several members say is being beaten out of the organization.

The chorus is about to perform at the iconic Tanglewood; its performance will honor those who are being ousted.

“A lot of people I’ve talked to want nothing to do with it,” said Hudson. “They call it the walk of shame.”

  • Al

    Sometimes arts organizations do need a little shake-up, to encourage veterans to step back and allow new talent to shine. This, however, does not seem like what happened. What a loss.

    • Yes. The performance of the chorus seems to be directly related to the way it’s treated by its leader.

      It’s, unfortunately, a common trait of the American workplace to assume the problem is with the workers.

      • RBHolb

        The problems are always with the workers. The triumphs belong to the leaders.

  • MrE85

    “[Burton] can populate this chorus with goats if he wants to…”

    Now, THAT I would pay to hear! https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/63e8c36772fbe159083dfa20b8f7b0286b9fce8012364f68e555765f0fae3824.jpg

    • theoacme

      I didn’t know Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo could sing!

      Tickets would be $800 in the cheap seats, though…

  • Mike Worcester

    Hope I’m not mis-readng how the chorus performs, but what would happen if when, the chorus performs, those in the audience who object to how this all transpired either walk out or stand and turn their backs in protest. While I get that would not change the ultimate outcome, could it be considered one way for people to register their displeasure? Especially considering that the BSO seems indifferent to the situation. (//The Boston Symphony Orchestra boss says he’s sorry if that bothered them.)

    • KTFoley

      I’m not sure that works in a place where people buy (expensive) tickets in advance and travel to western Massachusetts specifically to hear the chorus sing.

      More likely & more effective would be that they stay home and register their disapproval via an empty seat.

      • Mike Worcester

        I suppose if I had paid for an expensive ticket and someone stood up in front of me to protest something I imagine I’d not be pleased. (Though I do let the Circle Me Bert signs at Twins games a pass for the most part 🙂 ).

    • KTFoley

      (//The Boston Symphony Orchestra boss says he’s sorry if that bothered them.)

      Let’s peek at the source article’s account:

      “The BSO told the Globe the form letters were sent by “administrative mistake” and referred to a letter BSO artistic administrator Tony Fogg sent the chorus on June 21.
      ““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,” wrote Fogg. “I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to anyone who felt that way.””

      • Possible rewrite:

        “I regret that our communication to those who did not pass the audition was handled insensitively.”

        • KTFoley

          Bingo.

          But who or what is an Artistic Administrator, anyway, particularly in relation to the conductor? CEO? Supervisory role? Parallel/peer responsibilities? Minion?

      • Mike Worcester

        // “I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to anyone who felt that way.”

        Yet another student of the Non-Apology Apology School. We’re sortakinda sorry, but not really, so bugger off….

  • Mr. Twicky

    Since it’s creation almost half a century ago the founder of the chorus had been it’s only director. Is it any surprise that there is now a great deal of housekeeping to be done and that members of the chorus who had come to think of it as their personal club would resent the change? It sounds like some of this has been done in a ham handed way, but I suspect no matter how it was done those people on the receiving end would perceive it in this way. If you have ever been in an organization that is being asked to change after many many years you know there is going to be drama no matter how the changes are done.

    • KTFoley

      “members of the chorus who had come to think of it as their personal club”

      Is there a source from which you are drawing this inference?

    • RBHolb

      There is no chorus without the members. A great deal of its success and its good reputation is because of the long term members “who had come to think of it as their personal club.”

  • KTFoley

    From reading the article, it seems that the quote in the last paragraph refers to an end-of-season event planned to honor the departing members rather than the actual performance at Tanglewood.

    Also, there are two notes in the article that add some context around the end of John Oliver’s tenure with his singers. First, he retired from his position in 2015: his death in April undoubtedly saddened those who knew him but there had been two years of transition before he passed away. And second, there’s evidence that the chorus quality has been slipping over time, starting when Oliver was still conducting during a period of declining health.

    So this transition may be threatening and the way Burton goes about it may be about as reassuring as a dyspeptic armadillo, but it appears to have been a long time coming. It’s natural for people to view the leadership of a dear departed founder through rose-colored glasses: that doesn’t mean all was perfect up to the moment the new guy stepped onto the podium.

    Wanna guess how often the singers in VocalEssence, Philip Brunelle’s renowned chorus here in the Twin Cities, have to re-audition?

    • // From reading the article, it seems that the quote in the last paragraph refers to an end-of-season event planned to honor the departing members rather than the actual performance at Tanglewood.

      Tanglewood is the summer home of the BSO. The end of the season is usually early August. I’m fairly certain this appearance will be at Tanglewood on Parade, which is the traditional end of the summer season.

      • Mr. Twicky

        The end of the season is August 26.

      • KTFoley

        Yep yep yep (let me tell you a story about taking my mother to hear Yo Yo Ma with the BSO at Tanglewood …) but I’m looking at the placement of the “and” following the comma in this sentence:

        Meanwhile the chorus — including many of those who have been cut — is expected to perform at Tanglewood, and an end-of-season event is planned for departing choristers that Burton said is meant to “celebrate their service.”

        There’s performing at Tanglewood, and there’s the event. Hudson’s quote about people wanting nothing to do with “it” might mean either but Mrs. Ryan from sophomore English would insist the pronoun (absent other clarification) refers to the subject immediately preceding it.

      • SophieEtJulien

        They are being honored at an event, not a performance. There is an annual gathering for the TFC at the end of every Tanglewood season.

        Also, Tanglewood on Parade is on August 7th this year. The last official BSO performance at Tanglewood is August 26th with Beethoven’s 9th Symphony–their annual season-ending performance.

      • Soprano 2

        TW on Parade is in no way the end of the season. Beethoven’s 9th SYmphony, performed this year on August 26 is the traditional end of the season. Event planned to honor retiring/leaving choristers is part of private TFC party that weekend. I am a member in good standing of TFC.

    • Soprano 2

      To clarify, TFC members have had regular re auditions since its inception in 1970, There was a short period in the transition where there were not auditions. No one is complaining about the fact of re auditions. It is all about the way in which the auditions, and their subsequent results, have been handled this time around.

      • KTFoley

        Thank you, that is good to know! It sounded from the article as though the re-auditions were part of the new changes.