Flummerfelt bids farewell with Requiem

Joseph Flummerfelt at a 2008 Spoleto Festival rehearsal.

melissa haneline

The room, with its high ceilings and marble-tiled floors wreathed by geriatric books and bronze busts and oil paintings, took on an almost reverent silence moments before Joseph Flummerfelt entered, but once he stepped through the door, rapturous applause swelled.

The protean audience saw long-time fans and newcomers, old friends and Westminster Choir members past and present.

“We were just looking through the program and saw (Flummerfelt) was doing this talk,” said David Parish of Boston. “We know how respected he is and wanted to hear him for ourselves.”

Among those in attendance were two self-proclaimed “Flummerfelt groupies,” Frank and Rae Donnelly of Pennsylvania. Rae went to college with Flummerfelt and she considers him a good friend. “Leonard Bernstein considered Joe the greatest choral conductor of the 20th century,” Rae said. “He’s absolutely brilliant, and he’s such a good guy.”

Flummerfelt, who is retiring from his Spoleto Festival position after this week, illuminates his choice to present the Verdi Requiem, which will be his very big swan song.

“I didn’t like the Requiem for a long time,” he said, adding, with a hearty laugh, “which shows how stilted I once was.”

Flummerfelt spoke at length about the spiritual nature of music.

“A lot of composers and conductors turn to requiems at the end of their careers,” he said. “The Requiem is driven by a principal human ethic ... it’s haunting but peaceful, the chants of ‘requiem, requiem’ near the end, ... it reminds you that eternal damnation is a possibility, but it ends profoundly and quietly.”

In a navy blazer, a blue-striped shirt and white pants, and with a healthy head of hair for a 76-year-old, Flummerfelt looked kind of like a captain about to begin his final voyage.

“There comes a times when every conductor knows he should leave the stage,” he said. “It’s so easy to stay too long. I retired from Westminster (Choir College) at 67; now I’m just reversing the numbers.”

Speaking quickly, Flummerfelt gently decried frivolous prowess.

“I think the propensity for virtuosity for the sake of virtuosity is part of the world we live in,” he said. Then he took a rare pause, retracting his own words: “No, the world in which we live. Have to get my syntax right.”

Greg Cwik is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.