Joseph Flummerfelt, a Force Behind Mighty Choruses, Dies at 82

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lennygoran
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Joseph Flummerfelt, a Force Behind Mighty Choruses, Dies at 82

Post by lennygoran » Wed Mar 06, 2019 7:15 am

Joseph Flummerfelt, a Force Behind Mighty Choruses, Dies at 82


By Michael Cooper

March 5, 2019

Joseph Flummerfelt, the pre-eminent American choral conductor of his generation and a collaborator with some of the nation’s most renowned orchestras and maestros, died on Friday in Indianapolis. He was 82.

The cause was a stroke, according to the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. in Charleston, S.C., where he was the director of choral activities for 37 years until retiring in 2013.

Mr. Flummerfelt played an outsize, if not always highly visible, role in American classical music. He prepared choruses for hundreds of concerts by the New York Philharmonic and a host of other famous orchestras and maestros, and he trained generations of singers and conductors at Westminster Choir College in Princeton N.J.

He often readied choirs behind the scenes, then handed them off to more famous conductors, who would lead them onstage for the final rehearsals and performances. He was the de facto chorus master of the New York Philharmonic for decades, preparing nearly 600 choral performances with the orchestra from 1971 through 2016.

And when other top orchestras and conductors — a pantheon that included Claudio Abbado, Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez, Carlo Maria Giulini and Riccardo Muti — needed choruses for their requiems, masses and choral symphonies, they often turned to Mr. Flummerfelt.

Along the way, he became the best-known American choral conductor since Robert Shaw, the great chorus-builder and conductor, who had been a friend and mentor.

Mr. Flummerfelt conducted the Westminster Choir, the larger Westminster Symphonic Choir and the New York Choral Artists, which he founded in 1979. His choirs were featured on some 45 recordings, several of which won Grammy Awards, including one of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, conducted by Bernstein, and another of John Adams’s “On the Transmigration of Souls,” a work commissioned after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, with Lorin Maazel conducting the Philharmonic.

Mr. Flummerfelt played key roles as well at the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. and the Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto, Italy.

He often spoke of a need for flexibility in performance — warning that trying to “machine-in every detail” could “straitjacket” performers and stifle creativity.

“At a certain point, you have to let go and trust that the technical aspects will hold,” he told his friend and former student Donald Nally, who became an esteemed choral conductor and teacher himself, for Mr. Nally’s book “Conversations With Joseph Flummerfelt: Thoughts on Conducting, Music, and Musicians” (2010). “You need to just let it sing and, in a very real sense, to let the performance evolve organically and spontaneously.”

Joseph Ross Flummerfelt was born on Feb. 24, 1937, in Vincennes, Ind., where his father, John Ross Flummerfelt, was a funeral director and his mother, Mavorette (McGinnis) Flummerfelt, was a piano teacher. When he was about 5, he recalled, he came home from hearing her play the organ at the First Baptist Church, sat down at the family piano and picked out the hymn “Stand Up for Jesus” by ear. He had found music.

His family bought its first record player when he was 12, and it came with a free recording of Handel’s “Messiah,” stirring in him dreams of conducting.

“I remember spending hours in front of our living room mirror conducting that recording,” Mr. Flummerfelt was quoted as saying in Mr. Nally’s book. “Having seen only our local church choir and high school band directors at work (remember, this was before television), I didn’t really know what I was doing; yet responding to the music with some sort of gesture seemed to come naturally.”

After graduating from DePauw University in Indiana, where he studied organ and church music, he studied under a number of influential figures, including Nadia Boulanger. It was his mentor Shaw who first sounded him out about going to teach at Westminster Choir College.

Mr. Flummerfelt became a sought-after teacher and conductor at the college for 33 years. One of his summer students was a teenage Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who went on to become the music director of the Metropolitan Opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra. In 2009 Mr. Nézet-Séguin told The New York Times that his sessions with Mr. Flummerfelt had been the only significant conducting lessons he ever received.

“Flummerfelt had a such a relaxed way of approaching the sound, with relaxed gestures and breathing,” Mr. Nézet-Séguin said. “Today I regard those things as my fundamentals, as much for orchestral work as for opera and choral music.”

Mr. Nally, who conducts the Crossing, a Grammy-winning professional chamber choir in Philadelphia, and directs choral organizations at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music, said in a telephone interview, “The country is absolutely populated with people who studied with Joe.”

At Westminster, Mr. Flummerfelt broadened its repertory and performance opportunities, said Joe Miller, who succeeded him.

“He was kind of the artistic visionary behind the school,” Mr. Miller said by phone. (The college made headlines recently for another reason: It is being sold by Rider University to a Chinese company, but the sale is being challenged in court.)

Mr. Flummerfelt was brought to the Spoleto festivals in Italy and then Charleston by their founder, the composer Gian Carlo Menotti. When Menotti left the Charleston festival in a dispute in 1993, he made it clear that any artist who continued to work there would not be welcome at his Italian festival. Mr. Flummerfelt became the only artistic leader to give up Italy’s Spoleto — and give up working with Menotti — so that he could remain in Charleston, said Nigel Redden, who later became general director of the American festival.

“It is impossible to overemphasize how important that decision was to the preservation of Spoleto Festival U.S.A.,” Mr. Redden wrote in an email.

Mr. Flummerfelt’s survivors include a brother, Kent, and two sisters, Pam Flummerfelt Rappaport and Carol Flummerfelt Helmling.

In the Nally book of conversations, he spoke of the transcendent nature of conducting

“I do long for those moments where everything is in place, where everything is flowing, and then the real truth comes from the source — whatever that is: God, the creative impulse, it doesn’t matter what you call it. And suddenly, things happen, which you couldn’t have planned. Real beauty is being created because all of the forces are perfectly lined up and a profound innermost connection is manifested.”

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/05/obit ... -dead.html

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