A love letter to our dear friend.
Gian Carlo Menotti could smell art in people. Among the talents of the most charming and devilish man I knew, was his ability to identify the same in others, often in young people, often changing their lives.
And so it was, when, standing at the foot of a stage in a concert hall in Tallahassee in 1970, Gian Carlo tugged on the trousers of a thirty-four year old university choral conductor and said, “You must bring your choir to Spoleto.” His colleagues thought he was nuts; they were running an internationally renowned festival in Italy; they didn’t really need more young Americans (they had an orchestra full of them); they didn’t need more risks; they certainly didn’t need more conductors. But the composer’s senses and faith were intact and, the next summer, sharing the bill with Murray Perahia, James Conlon, Patrice Chéreau, and Frederica Von Stade at the 1971 Festival dei due mondi, The Florida State University Singers sang Dallapiccola, Haydn, Bach, and Boris Godunov. The town loved them. Gian Carlo named their conductor, “the new pillar of the festival.”
The following year, that conductor moved to Princeton to take the reigns at Westminster Choir College and The Westminster Choir became the choir in residence at the festival in Italy, destined to quickly become a stalwart, signature ingredient in the crazy mix of artists. For decades, singers would audition in a tiny room at the top of a Georgian-style building on the Westminster campus in Princeton, and three months later they would be exploring the Umbrian hills and singing at Spoleto’s Teatro Nuovo—or living at Wentworth dorm, eating pie at Goodie House, and performing on the stage of the Gaillard next to the great opera singers of our time. Over forty-two years later—and after sixty festivals between Charleston and Italy—I sit down at my desk in Chicago to write about the journey of their conductor, having myself been on a remarkable voyage entirely attributable to the credence and faith of our subject, Joseph Flummerfelt.
Mine is a daunting task. A task of awesome responsibility: to write a farewell, celebratory article on the retirement of an icon, an article that hundreds could compose. Some might speak of the art, leaping instantly to the sound of Bach chorales sung beneath the portico of Spoleto’s duomo, bouncing off ancient facades and heard round the medieval town. Others may evoke the image of a familiar figure in a sear sucker jacket and ascot, glasses hung around his neck, at lunch with a student, at dinner with a star, that growly laugh rising above the restaurant’s din. One could focus on the performances of a core repertoire by an artist who never tires of works of genius, finding profundity in performances that reveal new and deeper symbolism in a Bach cantata, Verdi’s Sacred Pieces or Mozart’s Ave verum.
Still, others would speak only of Charleston, of Joe’s role in establishing Spoleto Festival USA in 1977, of the awakening of a new artistic communal inner life, of a later rift, of survival, changes in leadership, new blood, and of the iconic concert that has and does anchor that festival—The Westminster Choir. How natural it would be to write only about that concert, of the stillness in the room, the anticipation, the procession of great accompanists, the profundity in a motet of Vittoria, the discoveries in the chansons of Debussy, the raw energy of Set down servant, the refinement in a Poulenc motet, of Brahms, of Brahms, and Brahms.
What does Joe do that would inspire this celebration in words? Surely we all know of the beauty, the organic richness, the emotion-informed colors, the tuning and blend that mark Joe’s choirs. Don’t they at least warrant attention here; shouldn’t we be recapping what happened in those sixty festivals—the artists and supporters and administrators, the amazing productions, the friends, the mirth, parties, arguments, and triumphs?
No. The kaleidoscopic choral textures, the refined phrasing, and this lavish history—we will take all that as a rather remarkable “For Granted,” wandering instead into the unspoken: just what happens in that little church in this little town, and happened in a much larger, much older, church in the Italian village from which we draw a name—and an idea, an aesthetic, and a history—when the subject of this essay (now a love letter) conducts? The question is not what does Joe do, it is what does Joe give?
Love. The event of love. The event that Gian Carlo recognized: “But, mother, let me send him my crutch; who knows, he may need it, and this I made myself”…in the sound of a choir. The invitation into one artist’s life through conducting: joy and grief and aloneness and laughter and regret and humility and resignation, understood by the community and, as a result, creating a Community.
And, so I write to the Charleston community, which I feel I know because they know Joe. We all share that Knowing; it happens with our ears. And, when the gift is as large as it is—one through which we understand ourselves better, even if it’s unwittingly given, even if it’s just the way he is, not meant as a gift at all, the blessing and the curse of the giver—we become the Community. Through the truth and the grace by which we’re connected—the feeling of being a part of something, of our desire for communion, for the freundliche Heimat—these moments of extraordinary generosity stay with us, sometimes for our entire, personal Forever.
The allegorical madrigal-cantata Joe was conducting that pivotal day in Florida, Gian Carlo’s The Unicorn, the Gorgon, and the Manticore offers a magnificently sage finale; the words introduce this essay. In the end, however, it did not tell the story of the composer’s long life; his was to be a more confounding Final Act. Yet, the miracle of Spoleto is the miracle of artists gathering around him to make Art greater than their individual selves—to be inspired by each other and by audiences hungry for the raw and impassioned art he saw in each of them. He gave us the gift of Joe, who decided, along with his friends, all brought together by Gian Carlo, to protect that miracle as a legacy in Charleston.
Now, Charleston, the curtain slowly lowers on my little letter, as it does on a chapter in your history—the Flummerfelt years. And, the task I have here is, well, it’s just impossible: to try to capture this character, this estate, Joseph Flummerfelt, in a few closing words. Who else do we know that would describe Brahms’ counterpoint as “polarities of entrapment,” or transform the sound of a Bach chorale by speaking openly about the soul to twenty-year olds; who does not know how many Grammys he’s won; who carries with dignity those things that “Time’s flight” has both stolen and given; who brings the Wada Test into a discussion of how music works in our brains, admits perplexity over minimalism, refuses to suffer the rise of form by insisting on content; whose titles include Doctor, Maestro, and Professor but is affectionately, and with no disrespect, known to most by his first name; who of such musical resource allows such access, such friendship; who faces the topics of love, God, and death with intrepid honesty?
Joe. This is our love letter to you. The Tao tells us that to be deeply loved gives us strength, while loving deeply gives us courage. My letter is about a legacy. The legacy is love, which is to say it is also about strength and courage—the courage to let us hear you. Will you hear the gravity in our voices, the love in our souls, and the sincerity in our hearts when we say, “thank you?”
Donald Nally is conductor of The Crossing (Philadelphia’s new-music choir), chorus master at the Chicago Bach Project, and Professor of choral music at Northwestern University.
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