Joseph Flummerfelt, an esteemed choral conductor who helped establish Spoleto Festival USA and who led the Westminster Choir for more than 30 years, died Friday. He was 82. The cause of death was a stroke, according to his close colleagues.
Flummerfelt was a constant presence at the Spoleto Festival, even after he retired as director of choral activities in 2013.
He had held that post since the birth of the festival in 1977, and also served as chorus master of the Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto, Italy, for 23 years, from 1971 until 1993. Gian Carlo Menotti started both festivals and depended on the contributions of Flummerfelt and his singers.
In 1979, Flummerfelt founded the New York Choral Artists and became chorus master for the New York Philharmonic, a role he maintained for decades, preparing choruses for multitudes of concert performances. He made his New York Philharmonic conducting debut in 1988 with a performance of Haydn’s Creation.
"Joe was one of the architects of Spoleto Festival from our beginning in 1977," said General Director Nigel Redden. "He was always a champion of the highest artistic standards and of the artistic integrity of all that we put on stage.
Redden said after Gian Carlo Menotti abruptly left the Spoleto Festival in 1993, Flummerfelt's dedication helped ensure the festival would survive and, ultimately, thrive.
"I hate to think of what might have happened to Spoleto Festival USA if Joe had not helped lead us through that very difficult time," Redden added. "He was a giant in the choral world and a giant in the world of Spoleto Festival USA. We will sorely miss his wise counsel, his insights and his generous presence."
The Westminster Choir has been a cornerstone of Spoleto Festival. Under Flummerfelt's leadership, its singers performed choral concerts and populated opera choruses. Joe Miller became director of choral activities for the festival after Flummerfelt retired.
In late January, Flummerfelt visited Charleston to conduct the Taylor Festival Choir, sharing the podium with the ensemble's founder, Rob Taylor, who counted Flummerfelt as an important mentor and friend.
"Sharing the podium with him on that concert will remain a highlight for the rest of my days," Taylor said. "The thought hit me more than once on what a huge impact Joe Flummerfelt had on shaping music in the Lowcountry. ...A Midwesterner by birth, and centered in the Northeast during his legendary career, Joe nevertheless embodied all things Southern. Charm. Grace. Wit. Charisma. And an easy manner in social settings that could melt anyone."
Flummerfelt was born Feb. 24, 1937, in Vincennes, Ind. He studied organ and church music at DePauw University, and choral conducting at the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music and University of Illinois. Early in his career, he taught at the University of Illinois, DePauw University and Florida State University.
"(He) was deeply spiritual in an ecumenical sort of way," Taylor said. "It was the talks we had on politics, philosophy and spirituality that I will treasure most. Ever curious, I remember him seeing me reading Thich Nhat Han’s book 'Living Buddha Living Christ' one summer — and the next time we talked he too had read it, and a conversation began. I loved those talks. He urged all around him to 'go deep.' We all did, and his influence took us to deeper, better places."