For a quarter century, John L. Goldsmith had a home within the gray limestone walls of a neo-Gothic chapel in Oakland, coaching four dozen voices to resounding performances.
As director of the Heinz Chapel Choir, a student ensemble at the University of Pittsburgh, he packed the eponymous chapel in ways not seen before. In doing so, he taught more than 500 students — many of whom could not read music and simply wanted to learn how to sing.
“He spent his entire career making that choir worthy of that space, and he succeeded,” said Elaine Goldsmith, recalling her husband’s advanced skill in teaching tonal memory. “It was the perfect union of a beautiful music and a beautiful space.”
Mr. Goldsmith died Thursday after a battle with cancer at his home in Stanton Heights. He was 71.
A native of Westerville, Ohio, Mr. Goldsmith met his future wife while they were both singing students at Ohio State University, preparing for a performance of “Messiah” in December 1977.
Married shortly thereafter, Mr. Goldsmith spent some time as the choral director at West Virginia University before leaving academia and joining a retirement insurance company in Texas.
It was not long living in Houston and hawking variable annuities before he began to miss teaching music, Mrs. Goldsmith said. Familiar with Pittsburgh from his days at WVU, he saw a future here and applied to Pitt’s music department, she said.
Upon joining the school’s Music Department faculty in 1989, the couple settled down in Stanton Heights, and Mr. Goldsmith consumed himself with reinvigorating the role of the Heinz Chapel Choir.
Mrs. Goldsmith, an accomplished singer in her own right, quickly got a job teaching elementary school music in Fox Chapel Area School District and as a conductor for the nonprofit Children’s Festival Chorus, now known as the Pittsburgh Youth Chorus.
Mr. Goldsmith’s arrival garnered immediate notice from the performing arts community.
“Suddenly, the Christmas concerts — you couldn’t get tickets for them because they were sold out,” said Don O. Franklin, professor of music emeritus at Pitt and former director of Heinz Chapel Choir. “He set about a very precise re-tuning ... he turned them into a first-rate choir.”
His passion was for a cappella, Mr. Franklin said — that is, vocals not accompanied by instrumentation. At any given time, Mr. Franklin said, the choir consisted of between 45 to 54 students, most of whom were majoring in something else. He became nationally recognized for developing ear-calibration methods to prepare choral ensembles, traveling to workshops and conferences.
“He was a consummate musician,” Mr. Franklin said.
In a statement last week, Deane Root, chair of the Department of Music, said Mr. Goldsmith is “an indelible part of the lives and memories of thousands of Pitt students, faculty, staff, and alums.”
A campus memorial program is being planned for a future date, he added.
Mr. Root remembered that Mr. Goldsmith reinvigorated the choir “as the university’s preeminent student ensemble through superb musicianship, resulting in packed concerts and international attention for the university. ... He is remembered for his wit, his passion for the ensemble, as well as for the many ways in which he shared his superb musical talents.”
Mr. Goldsmith and his wife both retired in 2014 so they could travel together. He began to battle cancer that progressed quickly in recent months.
But Mr. Goldsmith’s teaching will continue to spread.
Craig Cannon, a former high school choral director at Fox Chapel, said he uses the conductor’s methods in ear-calibration and teaches them to colleagues.
Perhaps as evidence of the success of his method, alumni of the choir in January organized a group performance outside his home. Though many of them had never sang together — the group included some of his first students and his most recent students — the product was harmonious, according to Mrs. Goldsmith and Mr. Cannon.
“That’s a testament to the training he offered and the quality they wanted to give to him,” Mr. Cannon said.
Mr. Goldsmith’s family requested donations be made to the Heinz Chapel Choir, University of Pittsburgh, Department of Music, 110 Music Building, Pittsburgh PA 15260 or to the Catholic Hospice at 2605 Nicholson Rd, Suite 3240, Sewickley PA 15143.
In addition to his wife, he is survived by his sister, Joan Deamer, of Mill Valley, Calif., and his brothers Edwin A. Goldsmith, of Roseville, Calif., William C. Goldsmith, of Westerville Ohio; and Joseph C. Goldsmith, of Guerneville, Calif.
Daniel Moore: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore.