Flummerfelt to say goodbye with Verdi’s Requiem; Pillar of Spoleto Festival retiring after 37 years

Joseph Flummerfelt conducts a rehearsal during the 2008 Spoleto Festival. Buy this photo

In 1971, Joseph Flummerfelt was a young choral director with a growing reputation and a group of singers who wowed the audiences at a summer festival in Spoleto, Italy.

Flummerfelt had been invited to join the Festival dei Due Mondi (Festival of the Two Worlds) by its founder, Gian Carlo Menotti, who had heard the choral conductor the year before and decided to put him at the center of the arts festival, naming him Maestro del Coro. Not only would the choir give concerts, its singers would play critical roles in various productions.

That summer was the first of 23 seasons Flummerfelt spent in Spoleto. And that same year he became artistic director and principal conductor of Westminster Choir College, part of Rider University in Princeton, N.J. His tenure there lasted 33 years, until his retirement in 2004.

In 1977, Menotti realized his vision for an American arts festival in Charleston. Spoleto Festival USA was born, and Flummerfelt, director of choral activities, became an essential pillar from the start.

This festival, the 37th, is his last. He will leave with a bang.

On June 6, the College of Charleston’s TD Arena will host something out of the ordinary: a performance of Verdi’s “Requiem,” a masterpiece Flummerfelt loves and knows well. He will conduct the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra and a grand vocal group comprising the Westminster Choir joined by the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus.

The soloists are soprano Jennifer Check, a Westminster Choir alumnus; mezzo-soprano Margaret Lattimore; tenor Bruce Sledge; and bass Alfred Walker.

The Requiem is among the most popular works in classical music, mixing drama with lyricism and demanding virtuoso singing from soloists and chorus.

Flummerfelt said it’s a work he loves. He conducted it six years ago at the festival and figured it’s the best way to say farewell.

“It’s one of giants of the repertoire and a work that has great audience appeal,” he said.

During the last several years, conductor Joe Miller has assumed many of Flummerfelt’s responsibilities at Westminster Choir College and at Spoleto Festival USA; the transition already has been made, Flummerfelt said.

Nigel Redden, the festival’s general director, called his colleague a consummate teacher who has trained his singers to be much more than members of a choir.

The festival always has made the theatrical experience a centerpiece of its offerings, he said. Menotti was himself a supremely talented stage director who strove to make opera more like theater.

The Westminster singers historically have served as opera choruses. And thanks to Flummerfelt’s guidance and sensibilities, they have done extremely well, Redden said.

“What you need is a choir that will do something other than stand around like a mob, and look like a mob. (Westminster choristers) could sing well, but they also could move on stage.”

And they absorb stage direction like pros. “He has trained these young singers to be much more than a choir.”

John Kennedy, resident conductor and director of orchestra activities, said Flummerfelt not only has been a festival fixture but “someone who has given so much musical wisdom to generations of singers, musicians and audiences and to the festival. Life in music is the accumulation of wisdom, wisdom not just musical but personal.”

In a telephone interview earlier this month, Flummerfelt sounded upbeat, confident and busy.

At 76, he remains involved with the New York Philharmonic, responsible for of all its choral activities, and has a pretty full performance and teaching schedule.

He is proud of his years with Westminster Choir College and the way in which the festival experience has radiated through the musical lives of his singers.

It is never enough to sing well, he said. A musician must communicate ideas and emotions.

“That’s at the core of my making music,” he said. “To the extent we are able to understand how the human gesture is reflected in the musical gesture, the music comes alive and becomes ever more communicative. Sound has its roots in the primal cry. Therefore the sound that I hopefully evoked all these years was the sound connected to very deep human and spiritual connection.”

Technique is important, of course, but not enough.

“That’s the head, but there’s got to be heart.”

Audiences over the years were his beneficiaries. They listened and learned. They experienced the calm bliss and exaltation that great choral singing provides.

Now it’s time to move on.

“I just feel that in everybody’s journey there’s a time that comes when you should leave the stage,” he said, confident of Miller’s talent and leadership and happy about the legacy he is leaving with the festival.

“It’s the right time for me to step aside. It has certainly been an extraordinary journey.”

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