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Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Richard Westenburg dies

Dick Westenbug just died at age 75.

If you read the obit below, from the NY Times, you'll get a sense of the kind of background and thorough training Dick had, along with the fantastic music-making of his career--he was a terrific musician--but perhaps not enough about his pure love of music and great sense of humor.

I didn't know Dick well--we served on the Chorus America board for several years and always chatted at conferences, but got to know each other a bit better when we both taught (me in the Fall Quarter and him in the Winter Quarter) at the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati as guest professors last year. During his time at CCM and after, we kept up an email correspondence about teaching, our shared students, and music.

He had a love and passion for music that was extraordinary, and it never seemed to lose its freshness for him. He was always delighted to talk about music and was fascinated by what I was doing in Sweden (he noted that he had Swedish heritage, but had never visited).

I especially remember standing with him next to John Leman (another wonderful musician we lost last fall) at a hotel in Minneapolis at the IFCM conference in 2002. This was after a young Russian choir had given a great performance (including the Schnittke Choir Concerto) and they met up with Gary Graden's choir from Stockholm. They sang for each other informally in the lobby, then joined together on several pieces they had in common, including Bogoroditse Devo from the All-Night Vigil. What fun to be with those two guys listening to this great, informal performance, both simply delighted to be listening to it!

There's also a wonderful interview with Dick in a recent Choral Journal. Don't miss it--it does give a sense of who he was and what he was about as a musician--and lots of great ideas.

He'll be missed.

NY Times Obit

February 21, 2008
Richard Westenburg, Choral Conductor, Dies at 75

Richard Westenburg, a choral conductor who founded the Musica Sacra Chorus and Orchestra in 1964 and made it one of the most renowned choruses in New York by the end of the 1970s, died on Wednesday at a hospital in Norwalk, Conn. He was 75 and lived in Redding, Conn.

The cause was colon cancer, said Bob Gallo, the spokesman for Musica Sacra.

Mr. Westenburg was a lively, inspiring director who kept close tabs on changing musicological notions about the performance of Baroque works but balanced those prescriptions with his own strongly etched sense of style, usually with stimulating results. His signature work was Handel’s “Messiah,” in which he led Musica Sacra at Carnegie Hall most years at Christmastime.

In the late 1970s Mr. Westenburg’s “Messiah” performances were widely considered the best in New York. His choir was a trim ensemble of between 30 and 35 singers, and his brisk readings offered a striking contrast to the mammoth Victorian “Messiah” performances that had become commonplace. In a review in The New York Times in 1977, Allen Hughes wrote that Mr. Westenburg’s interpretation “probably comes about as close as possible to an ideal representation of the work in terms of current musicological information and present-day demands of musical performance in general.”

Mr. Westenburg’s 1981 recording of “Messiah” with Musica Sacra, on RCA Red Seal, was highly regarded in its time and remains a favorite.

When recordings and live performances by ensembles using period instruments became more plentiful, and the Musica Sacra “Messiah” came to seem dated, Mr. Westenburg was not complacent. Although he did not make the move to period instruments, he hired orchestra players conversant with the sound and style that early-music specialist bands produced. And from the 1990s on he seemed intent on reconciling several competing schools of thought about “Messiah,” seeking to retain the sharp focus of his reduced choral sound while at the same time embracing the velvety tone, expansiveness and grandeur of more traditional, large-scale performances.

Beyond “Messiah,” Mr. Westenburg commanded a vast repertory that stretched from the works of Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th-century abbess and composer, to contemporary scores by Ligeti, Messiaen, David Diamond and Meredith Monk. Over the years Musica Sacra gave memorable performances of the Monteverdi Vespers, Haydn’s “Creation,” the Verdi Requiem, Liszt’s “Christus,” the Fauré Requiem and Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and Mass in B minor.

In 1979 Mr. Westenburg started and directed a Bach festival at Lincoln Center — it was called Basically Bach, a play on the alliterative name of the center’s successful Mostly Mozart festival — which ran for a decade. Although his performances with Musica Sacra were at its core, the festival also offered chamber music, instrumental recitals and choral concerts led by other conductors.

Richard Westenburg was born in Minneapolis on April 26, 1932, and won several small piano competitions as a child. As a teenager he became interested in the organ, and in 1954 he earned his Bachelor of Music degree as an organist at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. He completed a master’s in musicology, with a minor in film, at the University of Minnesota in 1956, and in 1959 he went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, Pierre Cochereau and Jean Langlais.

After two years as director of music at the First Unitarian Church in Worcester, Mass., he moved to New York in 1962 and enrolled at the Union Theological Seminary. He joined the faculty at the seminary in 1963 and completed his doctorate in sacred music in 1968.

In 1964 Mr. Westenburg was hired as organist and choirmaster at Central Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, and he quickly assembled an early version of the Musica Sacra Choir. During his 10 years at the church, Musica Sacra not only performed as its resident choir but gave public performances as well, and began to win a following. So did Mr. Westenburg himself, as conductor of the Collegiate Chorale from 1973 to 1980 and as a popular lecturer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1979 to 1982.

When he left Central Presbyterian Church to become conductor in residence at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in 1974, he brought Musica Sacra with him. But the choir was having financial troubles and canceled its public concerts in 1975. Its “Messiah” performance that year became a symbol of the ensemble’s determination: the concert was held in Mr. Westenburg’s living room, with the choristers and listeners partaking of a potluck dinner before the performance.

Mr. Westenburg assembled a board, and within five years the choir was thriving. When another financial crisis hit in 1994, his choristers, who are paid for their work, waived their fees for a few concerts, which were offered as benefits for the organization. In 1990 Mr. Westenburg became music director at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, again bringing Musica Sacra with him as the resident choir.

In addition to conducting, Mr. Westenburg taught choral music and conducting at the Mannes College of Music from 1971 to 1977, and led the choral department at the Juilliard School from 1977 to 1989. He was also a visiting professor at Rutgers University from 1986 to 1992.

Mr. Westenburg, whose two marriages ended in divorce, is survived by his sons Eric, of Reno, Nev., and Mario, of Redding; his daughters, Kirsten Westenburg Barnhorst of Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., and Nadia Westenburg of Redding; and six grandchildren.

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