Trouble at Tanglewood as dozens quit the chorus

Trouble at Tanglewood as dozens quit the chorus


norman lebrecht

June 28, 2018

Boston Globe today reports ructions in the Tanglewood chorus as a new British director, James Burton, culls ‘a large swath’ of singers.

Burton asked the entire chorus to reaudition. An estimated 39 members refused and are considered to have resigned.

‘I feel very close to the chorus over this first year and a half as their conductor,’ wrote Burton. ‘Though we are still in the early period of getting to know each other, going forward, I’m sure we all share the same goals — to take the ensemble to ever higher levels of performance as the Boston Symphony’s premiere chorus.’

Read on here.


  • Will Dawes says:

    Whilst there appear to be discrepancies amongst the disgruntled (all of whom sound as though they’ve grown very long roots with the chorus), and the manner of communicating the results of the re-audition process has it flaws, if the management of the chorus are looking for an improvement of the performance standard, then this ‘regeneration’ process is absolutely essential.

    It’s never fun to be part of this process (for either the singer, or the director), and balancing the musical and social aims of large choirs is a very tricky task, but this sounds a bit like people who have grown accustomed to the status quo, and they are shocked that the ambitious and highly talented new conductor is going to want to improve the standard of the choir – something he’s surely been directed to do.

  • Brucknerliebhaber says:

    I have great affection for the members of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and I have no basis to judge whether the new Choral Director had treated the members with proper respect in handling the re-auditioning process. However I know John Burton to be a very talented musician and a skilled trainer. If this is done to raise the standard of the Chorus, I would give him the benefit of the doubt and await the result.

  • Herr Doktor says:

    Being a long-time listener, there’s no doubt that the state of the chorus had diminished through the end of John Oliver’s tenure and real changes were needed. What the article indicates is that the manner in which the changes are being implemented may leave something to be desired. But without knowing anything about the specific personnel involved, the fact is, this is probably overdue. We can only be hugely grateful to all of those who have given so much of themselves over the years to be a part of the chorus, and I can immediately recall a number of unforgettable performances over the years. But real changes are needed (particularly in the sopranos), and hopefully Ryan Turner will be able to take the chorus to new heights.

  • BassOne says:

    I sang under Jamie for a number of seasons in Manchester. He breathed new life into the choir and is on a mission to do the same across the Atlantic. He is without doubt one of the finest choral trainers. It is never going to be an easy task to remove those who are not up to the task without causing upset among those affected, whichever way the process proceeds.

  • Lilas Pastia says:

    I read the article in the Boston Globe where choristers who had quit, or had failed the audition were interviewed.

    Surely regular reauditions are necessary to ensure that people singing in a chorus at that level and of that size still are up to scratch? I am surprised that this apparently not has been done in Boston.

    These singers are volunteers, i.e. amateur singers, and from the years of experience some of those interviewed have had (>40 years) some of those affected must be at least in their sixties. This is an age where many professional classical singers will have retired from singing. Amateurs/volunteers are not necessarily longer lasting vocally than professionals. For such dedicated volunteer singers as were interviewed, scheduling their entire lives around rehearsal and performing dates, I would not find it surprising that they might find it difficult to realize that they might not longer be up to scratch anymore (actually: professionals might have the same problem, as anyone who has heard Edita Gruberova during the last five years or so can attest). According to the article the third of the chorus chosen to reaudition the first year were selected by the director. While this might be seen as insensitive by those chosen, it appears sensible to first hear those where the director already has identified a possible challenge to keep up the musical level.

    Insensitive form letters and public shaming of individual singers as recounted in the article obviously is unacceptable, and it appears that this affair should have been handled more adeptly. Advanced musical theory (of what type?) is also something that cannot expected by many, even very good, amateur singers. But the policy of regularly reauditioning the chorus, and of getting the singers to understand that singing at the highest amateur level is not something that most singers can achieve well past the age of sixty, is something that appears only now to be understood in this chorus.

    • Stuart Vezey says:

      I am seventy years of age and have sung with a variety of choirs of various levels of expertise since I was seventeen years old.

      In my experience, in terms of voices for choir, a set of young voices will invariably sound better than a set of old voices. Given the likely age profile of the Tanglewood chorus this will inevitably present a problem to any music director keen to maintain the highest possible level of performance.

      As a composer I also work with one of London’s finest choirs. From conversations with members of the choir they all seem to have a firm grounding in music theory which enables them better to cope with the rhythmic and pitch complexities of much modern music.

      So in principal I am sympathetic to Mr Burton’s plight.

      However until recently I also sang with an excellent north London-based choir who, like the Tanglewood chorus, have stepped up their audition process and inevitably hurt the feelings of some long-standing members whom I count as friends. And of course I am sympathetic to them also.

      So what’s more precious – maintaining the highest possible musical standards at any cost or the joy of singing with friends with us all just doing the best we can?

      There’s room for both sets of experiences but I suspect not within the same choir.

      • Gomer Pierres says:

        The Tanglewood Festival Chorus is not a social club nor is it a local church/community choir. It is the chorus of one of the world’s major symphony orchestras and simply resting on the joys of singing with friends doing the best they can is not in any way a viable plan. It has to maintain the highest possible musical standards and, regardless of all the grumbling going on now, that’s what everyone expects. No organization that has gone nearly half a century with no change is going to undergo this kind of housekeeping without a considerable amount of drama. It sounds like some of the changes have been done in a ham handed way, but these accounts are coming from those who are disgruntled about the changes. My guess is no matter how delicately these things were done they would be perceived by many in a generally negative light. Hopefully when the dust settles the chorus will once again be a place of joyous music making and high standards.

        • Mark says:

          I am a long-time listener to TFC, a friend of one of the members, and casually acquainted with several others (some of whom are relatively recent members of TFC). I also know people who sang under John Oliver in other choruses that he has led. Unpaid or not, these are musicians who take their performance responsibilities seriously, used to working with a highly talented and respected choral director who also happened to be an outstanding human being.

          Let’s get rid of the notion that TFC has existed for “nearly half a century with no change”. John regularly re-auditioned (and sometimes replaced) singers whose voices he felt no longer gave him what he wanted. Chorus members came and went during his tenure because of other changes in their lives (jobs, schooling, illness, etc.).

          Let’s also get rid of the notion that TFC did not “maintain the highest possible musical standards”. I make no excuses because of their unpaid status: John had a sound in mind, and he got it. What that sound was might change for musical reasons, depending on the piece; but TFC sang in multiple languages, with good pronunciation and diction, from memory, and made musical and emotional sense while doing it. They were highly acclaimed, not only in Boston, but also on tour with the orchestra, to Japan, the UK, and parts of Europe, to name a few.

          “It sounds like some of the changes have been done in a ham handed way”: indeed. If James Burton had said, “I want a more youthful sound than this chorus has traditionally had; I want a more ‘English’ choral sound, one that is cooler and less passionate; and I want singers who have a background in theory so we don’t have to rehearse quite so many hours as you’re used to,” then his actions would have been seen as goal-directed and reasonable. Instead, he had promised coming in that he did NOT want to make such changes, which is likely the basis for the shock felt by so many TFC members.

          The BSO organization has shown insensitivity on multiple levels. Some of the reactions are probably stronger than they would otherwise have been, with this upheaval coming so hard on the heels of John Oliver’s death, and highlighting as it did the vast difference in humanity and consideration between the current management and TFC’s late director. But these things could have been done much better.

          People would have been disappointed when they were cut, but they wouldn’t have been so angry, and the morale of those remaining wouldn’t have taken such a hit.

          • Gomer Pierres says:

            @ mark – Clearly when I said the chorus had gone half a century with no change I was referring to it’s leadership and that is indisputably true.

            I also never said it hadn’t maintained it’s musical standards, but was replying to the previous comment that suggested perhaps the highest standards did not need to be maintained. Next time you want to make a point you’ll have a lot more credibility if you do it without twisting someone else’s words to fit your pique.

        • SweetHomeChicago says:

          I agree with all points I’ve read thus far. To take it further, anyone familiar with this particular ensemble can attest to the fact that the new director was put into an unfortunate and unenviable position when he took over the position from the previous director. From someone who listened to the BSO for many years but never performed with the TFC, it feels as if his actions promoted the feeling of a social club rather than a chorus affiliated with a world-class orchestra.

          I say all this to say this process might have gone smoother had John Oliver not let things go on for so long. The quality of the performance has declined over the years, and now James Burton is left to sort it. Although I’d rather not get political here, it all too reminiscent of what Obama had to deal with when he took over the presidency from GW Bush.

  • davidrmoran says:

    No one has advocated for musical mediocrity or feelgood continuation of old social club w/ geezers; it is only the gratuitously, seriously bad people management which is the matter. That’s all. Textbook bad, and bad as in counterproductive and ongoing and with negative consequences for the near term. Idly and sharply creating ill will. Great to hear that Burton is a choral wizard. But conflating the issues as in the above comments serves no purpose. Cellist Feldman nails it:,543847

  • Richard P Seago says:

    Anyone can understand that as singers age, so does the tone, range and overall sound of their voice. For women, menopause can often usher in a dramatic transformation especially with Sopranos where a change in tessitura being the most obvious. High C’s are no longer even possible and notes which previously floated out with the ease of a song bird turn labored and forced. Men, especially Tenors, the same. Vibrato becomes wider for both men and women and I suspect Burton, which his English choirboy roots finds this most unpleasant. From afar, I saw all of this coming. Anyone can see the the predominate color of hair in the chorus has been grey from quite some time and I wondered at the wisdom of hiring a Englishman to lead what has become a senior, American choir. What did they suspect? TFC is experiencing a challenge that every choir in America is experiencing: the absence of a regular influx of younger singers with the accompanying retirement of those who’s time has come. When they speak of singers who are offended and pissed off and who have been “singing in the choir for decades” then it’s obvious what’s going on. Getting old sucks. And for singers, we think we will be able to retire ourselves and be able to know when it’s time. I suspect that ability to actually do that is quiet rare because just because the voice is done, doesn’t mean the person is done. Burton sounds like he’s not being the nicest person in the world about all of this. So he needs to chill and choir members needs to see the big picture. Somewhere in the middle I trust the choir will be able to move on.