March 6, 2019

Conductor Joseph Flummerfelt “Focused People on Serving the Music”

“A TRUE FORCE OF NATURE”: Joseph Flummerfelt, former director of choral activities at Westminster Choir College and principal conductor of the Westminster Choir and the Westminster Symphonic Choir, died March 1 in Indianapolis. He leaves a huge legacy at Westminster.

By Anne Levin

Joseph Flummerfelt retired from his position as director of choral activities at Westminster Choir College 15 years ago, but his association with the school continued. In fact, he was planning on returning to Westminster this summer to work with his successor, Joe Miller, on the annual Summer Choral Festival.

But Flummerfelt was recently diagnosed with a brain tumor. He died on March 1, in Indianapolis, after suffering a stroke. He was 82.

“Joe was a true force of nature,” Miller said on Tuesday. “He was a huge presence. He cared deeply about people. He was a masterful  musician, but his music-making was never just about that. It was about what a great human he was, and how he connected it with people, and how he focused people on serving the music — using themselves to serve it rather than just create perfect music-making.”

“It is a big shock to all of us,” said Laura Brooks Rice, professor of voice at Westminster. “It happened so quickly. He has left such a legacy of choral conducting. The students he has taught lead major choral organizations in this country. And that’s not to mention any of the music educators and church musicians around the world who have been influenced by him.”

Flummerfelt, who led choral activities for the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. in Charleston, S.C., and the Spoleto Festival in Italy, conducted the Westminster Choir for 33 years. In 2016, he retired from 44 years of choral preparation for the New York Philharmonic. According to an article in the Rider News (Westminster is a part of Rider University), he was praised by Leonard Bernstein as “the world’s greatest choral conductor” for more than four decades.

Bernstein was among the famed conductors with whom Flummerfelt collaborated during his career. Others include Claudio Abbado, Daniel Barenboim, Pierre Boulez, Alan Gilbert, Lorin Maazel, Kurt Masur, Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Muti, Seiji Ozawa, Wolfgang Sawallisch, and Robert Shaw. In addition to the New York Philharmonic, Flummerfelt’s choirs performed with the Philadelphia Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, and numerous others.

“I performed with him many times as a soloist,” said Rice, who has sung with the San Francisco Opera and Metropolitan Opera. “No matter what professional experience I had had or was currently having, I never witnessed anybody who could get to the core and meaning of music more quickly than Joe Flummerfelt. Fortunately, I had a chance to tell him he was the biggest influence on me as a musician and a teacher.”

Witnessing Flummerfelt’s exchanges with the great conductors who came to Westminster was a privilege, Rice continued. “Bernstein, Muti, Rostropovich — they all had such great respect for him.”

Miller recalled Flummerfelt’s graciousness to him when Miller took over Flummerfelt’s position at Westminster in 2004. “He made my way smooth, knowing when to stay out of the way and when to help,” he said. “He was very much a friend, and I just loved spending time with him.”

Flummerfelt also taught as a visiting professor and conductor at the Eastman School of Music, the University of Texas, New England Conservatory, the University of Illinois, Kansas City Conservatory of Music, and DePauw University. He has made numerous recordings, two of which won him Grammy awards. As an orchestral conductor, Flummerfelt made his debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1988. He was guest conductor with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, the Juilliard Symphony Orchestra, and the San Antonio and Phoenix orchestras.

But Westminster clearly occupied a significant place in his heart. “He held a standard for the students here that all of us faculty, if we were smart enough, would rise to,” said Rice. “And he was also a very good friend.”