Obituary: Robert Page / Renowned choral conductor, musician and educator
April 27, 1927-August 7, 2016
August 8, 2016 10:27 PM
Robert and Glynn Page at the Pittsburgh Opera Association Candlelight Musicale Christmas Gala.
By Elizabeth Bloom and Andrew Druckenbrod / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
For all of conductor Robert Page’s accolades, there may be no better example of his prowess in choral music than this: He improved a Robert Shaw choir.
That would be the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus. The illustrious Shaw had left a few years before Mr. Page took over in 1971, and he had to work to do to return it to its former glory.
Four years later, he won a Grammy with the choir for a recording of Orff’s “Carmina Burana.” A titan of the choral scene in 20th-century America, after 18 years in Cleveland he was asked to rehabilitate a choir down the road: the Mendelssohn Choir of Pittsburgh. From 1979-2005, he transformed that chorus into one of the finest in the country.
Mr. Page, 89, of Oakland, died from a bone infection on Sunday.
While Mr. Page spent much of his professional life with the Mendelssohn and on the faculty of Carnegie Mellon University, his wide-ranging reputation was established long before he arrived in Pittsburgh.
He had worked closely with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra before taking the Cleveland post. His choruses appeared on more than 40 recordings, and he won a pair of Grammys, for “Carmina Burana” and Orff’s lesser-known “Catulli Carmina.” Sometimes referred to as the “dean of American choral conductors,” Mr. Page was a champion of living composers, having premiered works by Samuel Barber, Alberto Ginastera, Krzysztof Penderecki, Ned Rorem and others.
A self-described country boy, Mr. Page was the eighth of 10 children born in Abilene, Texas, and grew up among the shape-note and a cappella singing traditions of his church. While he sang in choirs in high school, he initially planned to become a journalist. He joined the Navy as a yeoman and chaplain’s assistant in San Diego in 1945. After singing in “H.M.S. Pinafore” with a San Diego company, however, he decided to switch course, and ultimately graduated with a degree in music from Abilene Christian College (now University).
His first job, in 1948, was with a high school choir in Odessa, Texas. After a stint teaching at Eastern New Mexico University and graduate school at Indiana University and New York University, he arrived in Philadelphia, where his career blossomed as a professor at Temple University and as a close collaborator with Mr. Ormandy.
Mr. Page became head of CMU’s school of music in 1975, later serving as director of choral studies and professor of music and ultimately being named a university professor.
The conductor used colorful language to get what he wanted out of musicians. In one rehearsal, taped for his retirement from CMU in 2013, he told one orchestra member, “I want sexier, sensuous and like a gypsy, like you’re playing for money. Like you’re playing for money, and you’re playing at a table at a restaurant, and you’re playing — agh, five bucks, 10 dollars, 15! For you, I’ll do vibrato!”
Of his myriad accomplishments, Mr. Page was most proud of the role he played in modernizing choirs in America in the second half of the 20th century. “I dedicated the rest of my life to creating opportunities for professional singers,” he told the Post-Gazette in 2005. “In that day and age, they worshipped the amateur.”
Mr. Page’s crusade led him to create the Robert Page Singers in Cleveland and co-found Chorus America in 1977, serving as that organization’s president from 1990-1993.
He also toiled against prevailing pejorative opinion of choruses in the orchestra realm. In his view, the symphonic world needed to respect singers to guarantee that higher standards would exist everywhere.
At the heart of the issue was singers’ pay. When hired by the Mendelssohn Choir, he made that a sticking point, boosting the volunteer group with a core of 20 professional singers.
Mr. Page re-auditioned the members each year, said Barry Miller, the choir’s former operations manager, and he developed an intimate knowledge of each singer’s voice, allowing him to move vocalists among or within sections. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of choral music and, in particular, of the particular works he was conducting. Under his baton, the Mendelssohn developed the flexibility to sing Bach or Stravinsky, pop music and folksongs. Ultimately, his goal was to professionalize the choir.
“He never used the word amateur. He always used the word professional,” Mr. Miller said.
To ensure the power he would need to advocate for the chorus, he insisted on a position at the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the Mendelssohn’s symphonic partner, which named him director of special projects and choral activities. He also mended its relationship with the symphony and then-music director Andre Previn, who had stopped working with the choir after a poor performance.
Along with Christine Jordanoff, he formed the Junior Mendelssohn in 1986. He was named Pennsylvania’s artist of the year in 1998. After his retirement, Mr. Page remained music director emeritus of the choir.
“He had an old-school Texas style to him,” said the actor and singer Manu Narayan, an alumnus of the Junior Mendelssohn and CMU, who pursued a career in the arts because of Mr. Page. “The energy he brought into the classroom and what he expected of students was fantastic. There was no coddling of students. He expected every student to act if they were professional and act as the most talented and focused students did.”
Alexandra Loutsion, a former member of the Junior Mendelssohn, recalls Mr. Page’s use of colorful language — “Hot damn, Loutsion!” or “Sing out, Agnes!” — to get his choristers to pay attention.
“He had this way of demanding respect but also having so much fun. And he just instilled in us this seriousness for the art form and made us feel what we were doing was really important and every single thing we did in rehearsal mattered,” said Ms. Loutsion, who also credits Mr. Page with her decision to become a professional opera singer. “He just had this way of making us feel like we were really contributing to society with our singing and with our art form.”
In addition to the two main orchestras in Pennsylvania, he conducted the major orchestras of Minnesota, Houston and Dallas and several ensembles in Europe.
“Let’s face it: The man was a giant,” Mary Ann Lapinski, the Mendelssohn’s executive director, said. “He had a rare kind of life where he achieved success, fame. He worked with legendary musicians. He was one himself. And yet when we think of him — the Bob that inspired such love — I think it was because Bob first and foremost loved music, love singing, loved singers. We will forever think of him as a mentor, and he touched so many lives.”
Throughout his time in Pittsburgh, he remained active in the cultural and educational life of the city. In April, he co-directed a choir of local university students for a performance with the PSO.
He is survived by his wife, Glynn; his daughters Paula, the former harpist of the Houston Symphony, and Carolann, a theater and opera performer; three grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. There will not be a visitation. A memorial tribute will be held at a later date.