Just in: Tanglewood hires British chorus chief

Just in: Tanglewood hires British chorus chief


norman lebrecht

February 02, 2017

press announcement:

James Burton is the next Conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, an appointment that takes effect immediately in conjunction with this week’s Andris Nelsons-led Boston Symphony performances of Bach’s monumental Mass in B Minor, February 2-7, for which Mr. Burton prepared the chorus. In addition, Mr. Burton takes on the newly established title of BSO Choral Director, a role in which he will explore new opportunities to enhance the orchestra’s choral activities. The appointment of Mr. Burton to the position of BSO Choral Director and Conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus is the result of a search that began in summer 2015, when a committee of TFC members, Boston Symphony musicians, BSO staff, and a representative from the  BSO’s Board of Trustees, was convened and charged with appointing the next chorus director, under the guidance of Mr. Nelsons. Mr. Burton is only the second conductor to be appointed director of the TFC since its founding in 1970; he follows in the footsteps of John Oliver, founder and director of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus from 1970-2015, who currently holds the title Founder and Conductor Laureate.

Andris Nelsons said: ‘Together with my wonderful BSO colleagues, I am very honored to celebrate the appointment of James Burton as the next Conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. We are excited to have found such an inspiring and unique person to lead the BSO’s special chorus, and proud to continue the incredible legacy of TFC Founder and Conductor Laureate John Oliver.

‘James has an extraordinary ear for vocal balance and blend. His immense understanding of the numerous different languages of the chorus’s repertoire, and instincts with all musical styles, are just a few of his many gifts.  He has greatly  impressed us all with his ability to inspire the chorus and communicate his ideas so effectively regarding both technique and music interpretation. Finally, we all so appreciate James’ collaborative spirit in all his work, sharing his enthusiasm and passion for music with all of us. We all join him in our goal to bring our very best music-making to our wonderful audiences, who have always shown so much admiration and kind support to our all-volunteer chorus.




  • Herr Doktor says:

    Congratulations, James Burton, and welcome to Boston!

    It’s not popular to say this, but James Burton has his work cut out for him with the Tanglewood Chorus. While still a very good ensemble, it has slipped significantly from the exalted peak it existed at for quite a while (a decade ago), and the last half dozen years or more of John Oliver’s tenure saw a significant diminishing of the quality and reliability of the chorus. A lot of work needs to be done–and the sopranos in particular need some serious attention. While knowing nothing about Mr. Burton, I am very hopeful that he will restore the chorus to its greatness not so far into the future.

    • Jon H says:

      Agreed. The singing in the German Requiem recently was surprisingly lackluster.

      • Herr Doktor says:

        Yes Jon, as it was also when they sang the Brahms Requiem during James Levine’s tenure. I compare and contrast that (rather ragged) Levine performance to the exceptional performance the chorus gave us of the German Requiem at Tanglewood over a decade ago, conducted by Edo de Waart in memory of Robert Shaw, who was to have led that concert but sadly passed away beforehand. At Tanglewood, the chorus delivered the single greatest performance of any choral work I’ve ever heard, and they stole (and were) the show. But by the time James Levine conducted the German Requiem, the chorus had significantly deteriorated. And this happened in plain sight by the way, a slow and steady decline, not a sudden lurch in quality. I heard it happening in real-time.

        • Edgar Brenninkmeyer says:

          Sehr geehrter Herr Doktor, I agree with your sentiment. I attended the Bach B Minor yesterday, February 2, together with several friends. My response to the performance is mixed: while Andris Nelsons clearly conducted with deep commitment and great reverence to the composer and his monumental work, more than once the overall clarity was smothered by the 115-member strong Tanglewood Chorus. One friend remarked after the concert: “Did you see Andris’ face at intermission [after the Gloria]? He did not look at all happy. I suspect he must have read them the riot act, because in the second half they sounded much better.” Had the number of singers been half or less, the results might have been even more satisfying, if only for better “Durchhoerbarkeit” of choral and orchestral textures. I hope Mr. Burton will improve things with a rigorous set of exercises in diction, intonation, etc. (including rising and sitting down silently and as one body). All yours, maestro a coro. Which brings me to Andris’ conducting and choice for a large choral ensemble and rather operatic sounding soloists (with the exception of soprano Malin Christensson): at times during the performance, my mind drifted off to Verdi. While executed with utter dedication by all involved, I look back at this performance with the impression that Andris conducted the B Minor as an opera. That said, hard work on the Tanglewood chorus, and equally hard work by Andris and the BSO on Bach, will eventually do the BSO family proud. I, for one, wish them luck with enhancing orchestral/choral performances, as there is still much and more greatness to (re-)gain.

  • Michael Miller says:

    I don’t remember if Burton presided over the rather ordinary singing in the Rossini Stabat Mater, otherwise superbly conducted by Dutoit, but they passed up a genius in James Bagwell. His work in Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky and Strauss’s Elektra was unsurpassed.

    • Steven Ledbetter says:

      If your reference to Elektra refers to the chorus, it is surprising to hear any performance lasting some 90 seconds of offstage cries of “Orest!” to justify the adjective “unsurassed.” There is no other choral singing in that score.

  • Jon H says:

    We will not make any generalizations about British choral directors, organs/organists, or brass bands.

  • Robert Wilkins says:

    Why no mention of Lorna Cooke DaVaron in the discussion of BSO choral history????? She certainly played a significant role in the choral history of the BSO!!!!