This year’s Spoleto Festival USA in Charleston struck a decidedly bittersweet note: It was the swan song of Joseph Flummerfelt, the choral heartbeat of the festival in both Italy and Charleston since 1971 and the last of the original Spoleto team. His finale on June 6 was a soaring Verdi Requiem, one of his signature pieces. It was not a harrowing reading, as was his 2007 Spoleto performance, nor could it have been. Performing in a basketball arena because the Gaillard Auditorium is under renovation, the timpani could only produce muffled thuds, the brass un-reverberating oompahs, the basses unheard sighs.
Nonetheless, the surround-sound brass in the rafters produced a thrilling frisson, and the soloists projected with surprising force. Everyone rose to the occasion. Bruce Sledge‘s tenor maintained its purity with no help from the acoustics; bass Alfred Walker growled out the terror of the piece even though this element was mostly tamped down. Mezzo-soprano Margaret Lattimore was terrific, and Jennifer Check held back nothing in the risky high notes. (“She has three lungs,” Lattimore told me afterward.) Check is a former Fummerfelt student, and many others from around the country showed up for a moving farewell to “Flumm” (as his students affectionately call him) at the Francis Marion Hotel after the concert, despite a hurricane that was blowing sheets of water through Charleston.
I’ve been hooked on Flummerfelt ever since I was a teenager collecting records. I remember many remarkable performances with the New York Philharmonic – including hair-raising versions of Berlioz’s Te Deum and Bartók’s Cantata Profana – when I moved to New York from South Carolina in the early ’70s. The Flummerfelt sound, surging with vitality yet refined to a purity that makes the choir seem one voice, spoiled me.
The unique roundness and warmth of Flummerfelt’s sound is the result, he tells me, not of controlling singers but of opening up and allowing them to be in touch with creative energies they didn’t know they possessed. When I’ve asked him over the years how he gets this sonority, he says you have to “let yourself be vulnerable.” The goal is “to help human beings be more in touch with themselves,” and this includes the orchestra as well as the choir. To Flummerfelt, an obsession with control is a sign of “insecurity,” and our current obsession with mechanical perfection is a “sickness.”
The most moving Flummerfelt experience came when I was asked to write about a hastily organized New York Philharmonic 9/11 memorial concert led by Kurt Masur, with the choir directed by Flummerfelt. By then, he was a colleague (we were both on the faculty at the Westminster Choir College, where I teach American Studies), and I remember him saying to me right after the tragedy, “It’s so horrific that you just can’t wrap your brain around it.” This was exactly right. No one really understood the enormity of this thing, though many purported to. What we could wrap ourselves around was Brahms’ German Requiem, Flummerfelt’s consoling and cathartic choice for the occasion. (A commercial recording of a live performance from 1995 is available.) Kurt Masur suggested Britten’s War Requiem, but Flummerfelt felt New Yorkers needed a piece that was healing.
Philharmonic audiences are notorious coughers, but this was the quietest concert I’ve ever heard. For a miraculous hour and ten minutes, everyone seemed emotionally and spiritually connected, just as the Philharmonic and Flummerfelt’s singers seemed part of one flow. At the end there was no applause, just silence. A woman next to me, a total stranger, grabbed my hand and squeezed it. It became clear then that Joe Flummerfelt was New York’s choral conductor, not just Wesminster’s.
Flummerfelt’s final interview at Spoleto, ostensibly an occasion for final musings on an extraordinary run, was revealing and painfully funny. Martha Teichner, who asked the questions, was not only on a different page than her interview subject but on a different planet.
When she asked Flummerfelt what his favorite CDs were, he said he didn’t listen to CDs: “I care about recreation, not reproduction.” When she asked who his favorite maestros were, he refused to play the game (though when pressed, he repeated his often-expressed admiration for Claudio Abbado, whose soulful self-abnegation resembles his own.) When he stated his love of solitude and self-reflection, she asked him what form of meditation or yoga he practiced. None, he answered. When she persisted, he said, “I just want to be quiet.”
The most bizarre non-sequitur occurred when she asked him what he thought of Glee. He didn’t have the slightest idea what she was talking about and responded as if she were asking about glee clubs, which he thought were a perfectly fine tradition. When, after an excruciating pause, it became clear what the misunderstanding was, the audience collapsed into nervous laughter.
Post-Spoleto, Flummerfelt will continue to lead his impeccable New York Choral Artists in New York. This group does not have the youthful vibe of the Westminster Choir, which he led for some 36 years and which consists of college students, but it is still a Flummerfelt choir.
This season he is preparing a Beethoven Ninth with the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. Anyone who heard his Ninth with the Lucerne Orchestra at Carnegie knows that he can make the finale sound blazingly new, just as he can make a modern work like Ligeti’s Le Grande Macabre, which he did recently with the New York Philharmonic, sound emotionally gripping rather than just edgy.
The most completely satisfying Flummerfelt performances are those where he leads the orchestra as well as the chorus – something that has happened for years at Spoleto, only sporadically elsewhere. His phrasing of the orchestral line is as focused and exquisite as it is with the singers. There is seamlessness in a Flummerfelt performance, a mystery and humanity.