Choral

A community of voices.

A tribute to choral master Joseph Flummerfelt, who has died at 82

Joseph Flummerfelt was 'the world's greatest choral conductor,' according to Leonard Bernstein. Courtesy of Rider University

The choral world mourns the passing of a legend: Grammy winner, educator, conductor and arranger Dr. Joseph Flummerfelt, who died Friday at 82 in Indianapolis.

He was a consummate musician, for decades serving as the conductor of the Westminster College Choir and with the New York Philharmonic, preparing choirs and scores for recording and concerts. Musical America selected him as Conductor of the Year in 2004.

Leonard Bernstein once remarked that Flummerfelt was "the world's greatest choral conductor" — not "one of," but the greatest.

His choirs, including Westminster and New York Choral Artists, recorded internationally with dozens of major orchestras. In 2004, he won a Grammy for the New York Choral Artists' recording of John Adams' On the Transmigration of Souls, with Loren Maazel conducting the New York Philharmonic. The New York Times selected his recording of Brahms' choral works, Singing for Pleasure, as a top favorite among all recordings of the composer's music.

For 37 years, he also served as director of choral activities for the Spoleto Festival in South Carolina and for an additional 23 years with a sister festival in Spoleto, Italy.

Flummerfelt had a gift for working with high school musicians. One summer, a teenage Yannick Nezet-Seguin took a workshop with Flummerfelt. Since then, the Metropolitan Opera and Philadelphia Orchestra conductor has cited Flummerfelt on many occasions as one of the two greatest influences in his musical life and the one who gave him "the only significant conducting lessons" he ever had.

Flummerfelt never flagged in his passion for working with music students and often traveled the country giving workshops or conducting two- and three-day festivals for music educators up and down the East Coast.

I was lucky to meet him when I was 16. He conducted our PMEA Eastern Pennsylvania Regional Honors Choir at a festival in 1971.

For two solid days of rehearsals ending with a gala concert, he rehearsed us. Sometimes he joyously celebrated something terrific we did in a passage in a cantata by Daniel Pinkham. Sometimes he cut us off, shaking his head, bemoaning the fact that we had not learned our notes and rhythms at all in Randall Thompson's Alleluia. Both are memories that have stayed with me over five decades.

But all of us in that choir wanted to please him. His energy, his ability to engage kids and his passion for choral music were obvious. What he gave to (and got out of) young singers in a choir was nothing short of a gift they would carry throughout life.