on the musical front

Jul 18, 2006

Our chorus has a new conductor after 52 years under the previous administration. Allen retired at the end of the ’05 season, so during the last year we auditioned three candidates who did one concert each. Two of them were neck and neck as far as their musicianship, personality, and enthusiasm. The other exceeded them in musicianship (particularly as a choral conductor), but sadly lacked in every other category. We had a fourth concert after the 3 candidates had their turn, so we asked the guy from Harvard to do that, which sent the whole chorus into disarray with his unorthodox style and while I think he meant well, he didn’t exactly gel.

It was hugely enlightening after having gotten so used to Allen’s style over the years at how different these guys all were, not only from him but from one another. It was kind of fun to be subscribing to the conductor of the month club, if you weren’t that crazy about the guy, well some other guy would be standing up there for the next time. But for many people, particularly the older, more crotchety members of the chorus, they didn’t want variety, they wanted continuity, preferably with someone who took the time to communicate with people individually and learn their names.

In the final analysis, the search committee had two equally worthy and popular candidates and chose the more connected of the two, who unfortunately after a year and a half of assuring us that he could change the rehearsal night for his other engagement so it wouldn’t conflict with ours, found out after getting the nod that he couldn’t do it after all, and had to withdraw. So we went with the number two choice, Steven, who in many respects I think will prove to have been the better choice anyway. He’s been very involved already, even though the rehearsals don’t start until after Labor Day, and is full of ideas but on the musical and administrative side. The chorus has been living a hand to mouth existence the last few years, audiences are down, membership is down, some of it due to the lack of an artistic director, plus some other managerial shortcomings. After two years of focusing on who would lead the group for the next 52 years, now it’s catch up time on taking care of all these other pesky details that have been languishing like giving better performances and getting more people to come hear them and raising the buckets of money that it takes to put on a show in this town.

Sadly, and maybe coincidentally, Allen passed away this past winter from cancer. His family put together a nice memorial service that somehow didn’t seem to measure up to the scope of his contribution to musical life in Boston. One thing that I still think about is a story told by the president of the choral directors association at that service, who said that shortly after he became president, he passed Allen in the hallway at the annual convention and Allen took him aside and said, “Jim,” or Dave or Bob or whatever his name was, “Always the highest standards.” That’s so Allen. It’s not even a complete sentence, but it sums up his attitude and the sense of purpose that he conveyed in any group he stood in front of with a baton. Allen was reputedly a tyrant in his younger days, by the time I came along he was much mellower, but still evinced tremendous respect from everyone he came in contact with. He wasn’t happy at first with the idea of retiring from the chorus, but I think he still thought there was more to be done, and once he didn’t have those weekly rehearsals in his mind, it’s not entirely surprising that his decline was relatively quick. I find his influence extends even in my piano playing, and as he made his presence felt in front of a chorus, an orchestra, and audience, his absence is felt equally as much.

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