After 42 years of practicing and sharing his art at Spoleto festivals on both sides of the Atlantic, Dr. Joseph Flummerfelt has decided that it's time to bow out as the festival's Director of Choral Activities. Having long been one of Spoleto's main artistic pillars, this beloved festival icon's retirement has prompted tributes in the big festival brochure, as well as in both the national and local media.
Having interviewed the good doctor many times for pre-Spoleto articles in the City Paper, I've asked him each time why he selected the particular work(s) to be performed that year. And, invariably, the first words out of his mouth have been, "Because I love the music." Well, I guess we can infer that he has a particularly strong love for Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem, the massive blockbuster among the world's great requiem masses, because this will be the third time I've experienced it performed at Spoleto under his deft baton. Verdi's so-called "sacred opera" is a work of sheer, ultrapotent genius: a melodramatic musical monument to human mortality that simply gushes worldly as well as sacred emotion. It both consoles and terrifies; captivates and repels. Knowing from personal experience the miracles Flummerfelt can make with this music, I can't think of a better way for him to bow out with a bang and a brilliant blaze of choral-orchestral glory.
Little did I know, on a hot August day in 1995 when I showed up to audition for the Charleston Symphony Orchestra Chorus (CSOC), what happily fateful doors would soon open to me. One of them, perhaps the best of them all, had Dr. Flummerfelt and his supreme Westminster Choir (WC) behind it. From local media articles that I had read since my 1992 return to my hometown of Charleston, I knew that he and his Westminster people were long-standing fixtures at Spoleto as well as its original Italian namesake festival from which it sprang. And I knew that, as a fledgling member of the CSOC, I was likely to get a chance to sing in his productions. But I had yet to realize the full extent of Flummerfelt's importance and pervasive influence on a global scale in the wonderful world of choral music.
Flummerfelt can take a bunch of vocalists whose understanding and proficiency as choral singers is not yet complete and teach them how to create great art together. He always had the right choral tip or technique at hand, or a revealing anecdote about the composer to share, or some pertinent philosophical observation to impart. Starting with a fairly ordinary bunch of mostly amateur municipal choral singers and adding a couple dozen of his stellar students to the mix, Flummerfelt never failed to make the entire group sound far better together than they ever even dreamed they could.
There are, of course, the more tangible factors like talent and years of hard work that make for exemplary skill and experience: factors we can take for granted here. But there are also some mystical aspects to it that you can't really put your finger on or define. The closest I can get to an answer is something that I've heard from others. He does it, quite simply, via the selfless gift of love. Love not only for the music he works with and the art he serves, but love for his students, colleagues, and audiences. Not to mention the tremendous joy and fulfillment he derives from sharing the sum of that love with all of us.
This production promises to be one that fans of Spoleto's big, juicy choral/orchestral extravaganzas will remember for a very long time to come. For starters, with the Gaillard closed for its big makeover and the Sottile being too small to accommodate demand, it'll get a new and very different kind of venue, the College of Charleston's TD Arena, a state-of-the-art sports facility that has been acoustically transformed and equipped with a stage to make it suitable for music and dance events.
So, will there be choral life after Flummerfelt at Spoleto? Of course. Will choral music ever be quite the same around here without him? Of course it won't. But that's not to say that it'll be any better, or any worse. It will merely be different, just as personalities, preferences, and professional methods are different. Dr. Joe Miller, Flummerfelt's successor at the helm of the WC since his retirement from the college in 2004, has convincingly proven his own choral mastery in conducting the WC's non-orchestral events in recent festivals. Thus far, he has done a stellar job, and there is every reason to believe that, as Spoleto's new Director of Choral Activities, he'll continue to fill Flummerfelt's shoes with passionate distinction.
Still, instead of saying goodbye, let's say what the Germans do: "auf Wiedersehen," or "until we see each other again." May you, Dr. Flummerfelt, in your retirement, rest easy on your considerable laurels, and in the bosom of your family, friends, and loved ones. And don't ever forget that Charleston's legion of choral singers and fans will ever continue to think of you as a loved one. Please visit us often, not only to observe your cherished legacy at work in the hands of those to whom you have passed your baton, but to gladden the hearts of those of us who have worked with you here. The Holy City will ever be open to you.