Memories of John Oliver

Below are some anecdotes of John Oliver that I remember fondly. My formal tribute to John Oliver is published on the MIT web site, along with those of my colleagues.

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Early in my TFC career, John approached me during a rehearsal break. “May I get your opinion on something?” he asked, pulling a carefully folded paper from his pocket. I panicked inside, assuming he was going to test his “newbie” with a musical question. Much to my relief and surprise, John showed me an advertisement for a 3-in-1 printer/scanner/copy machine. “That will be really useful to have in the office! And such a space saver,” I offered with far too much enthusiasm. “Good! I thought so,” John said, as he tucked the paper away back in his pocket.

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One time in the Symphony Hall basement, I passed John on his way to the vending machines, and he asked if I had change for a two or a five. “A two?” I asked. “I always ask for two-dollar bills at the bank. That’s how they remember me,” he said.

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Many years ago I had a coaching with John Oliver. At the end of the coaching, I asked how much I owed him for his time. He had already started walking from the piano back to his office and without turning around or pausing he said, “Nah, you’re family.”

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(I guess technically this is an anecdote about me, but anyway.) Whenever people talk about how nobody reads print newspapers anymore, I always chime in, “Actually John Oliver buys four papers every morning!”

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During a rehearsal of Bach’s Singet dem Herrn, John stopped the chorus, dissatisfied with the sound. “Don’t sing with your special Bach voices. Sing with the voice God gave you,” he said. These words of wisdom have become a personal motto for many of us.

* * *

July 26, 2017 was the last time I saw JO. I visited him with my friend and TFC “stand-mate” Jeni Cameron, and he was in such high spirits. In his living room, he had a framed “Missing Dog” flyer. He knew neither the owner nor whether they found the dog, but he thought the dog was cute! He told us about his friend Jim’s grandchildren and how kids were “the most astonishing thing,” a phrase he’d previously used only to describe great music and singers. He showed us pictures from the time Jim dressed him up in motorcycle gear and took him for a ride up and down the street. And, of course, he told stories about Leinsdorf, Lenny, Seiji, and Phyllis, all of which we’d heard before but were happy to hear again. Oh, what I would give to hear those stories again…I miss you, JO.


Related reading: Reflections on John Oliver and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus

Weepy Ninth closes BSO season at Tanglewood


Weepy Ninth closes BSO season at Tanglewood

LENOX — Sunday’s performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony marked the end of John Oliver’s 45-year career with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Oliver received the Tanglewood Medal in recognition of his preparation of more than 200 works and 500 rehearsal jokes for well over 1,000 performances.

Punctuated by heaving sobs and the occasional honking nose, the fourth movement of the symphony took on a morose atmosphere despite the text’s call to joy. Even chorus choreographer Anna Choi looked unusually serious. The Tanglewood Festival Chorus sang from memory as usual, keeping their hands free for fistfuls of kleenex and blowing kisses towards Oliver’s seat in the audience. At times, their signature “fully-throated” sound was blubbery and downright mucousy.

Naturally, the chorus pulled it together to execute the final fugue flawlessly.

The orchestra played admirably during the prior three movements, but truth be told, no one was really paying attention until the chorus stood up. The historic performance, which sparked an ovation lasting well into Monday morning, will be remembered for its passion and the tremendous achievements of its honoree, John Oliver.

Reflections on John Oliver and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus

John Oliver changed my life.

I spent my entire childhood training to be a pianist. Prodded by my “tiger mom,” I executed a routine of practice, competitions, masterclasses, and performances. By age 17 I knew I needed music — after all, I had hardly known life without it — but I didn’t love music. After spending three years at Juilliard in the company of children who already had managers, concert tours, and recordings, I was certain that music would not be my career.

I went to MIT with the mindset that music would be my hobby and nothing more. Music was going to be fun, dammit! I refused to audition for the music scholarship program despite a personal invitation from the faculty. Without earning even a music minor, I enjoyed MIT’s many music offerings, including chamber chorus, chamber music, and collaborative piano.

In 2006 I left MIT, having completed my undergraduate degree and one year of employment. I auditioned for the Tanglewood Festival Chorus to fulfill my need for a musical hobby, but in retrospect, I had no idea what I was getting into.

During my years in the TFC I finally fell in love with music. I performed and listened to the highest level of music-making in my life. I shared the stage with musicians who reduced me to tears (Stephanie Blythe, How can I keep from singing), made time stand still (Jessica Zhou, Ceremony of Carols), and inspired transcendent beauty (Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, B9). I spent an unfathomable number of hours memorizing scores, sharing during performances an almost-psychic connection with more than 100 singers who had voluntarily done the same. How could I not fall in love?

I was also fortunate that John took an interest in my singing, even though I have never been the best singer in the soprano section. In 2008, with only two years of voice lessons under my belt, I ended up on the Symphony Hall stage auditioning for James Levine for a solo in Bolcom’s Eighth Symphony. Over the years I performed several small solos at Symphony Hall and Tanglewood, but I never experienced the pressure I felt as a child musician. John’s way of providing opportunities and exuding trust is the best motivation any musician could ask for.

Because John believed in me as a musician, I began to believe in myself as a musician. I wondered if perhaps I never gave music a fair chance by relegating it to a hobby. So, after more than four years without playing a single note at the piano, I quit my job to become a full-time pianist. (I considered titling this post, “John Oliver made me quit my job,” but thought the better of it.)

Without John Oliver and the TFC, I would not have a new career and a new sense of life purpose. I also would not have met most of my friends. My TFC friends are the smartest and most interesting people I know, and aside from the TFC, many of us have nothing in common. As John wrote in his letter to the chorus, “It is the music that binds everyone together in that room, those who otherwise might not be bound together.” John created a family that is fiercely loyal and bickers about diction at the dinner table, and we all love him for it.

Like so many past and present TFC members, I am deeply saddened that the TFC will continue without John’s leadership, but I also understand the impetus to begin a new chapter in one’s life. I wish him all the best in his new role as Master Teacher Chair at the Tanglewood Music Center, and I thank him from the bottom of my heart.