Chorale Director Conducting Himself Very Well

John Finney is one of the hardest-working guys in the music business - and one of the most respected

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

When the Boston Symphony Orchestra recently needed an organist on short notice to perform a difficult piece on the last three nights of a visiting maestro's concert schedule, it summoned John Finney.

"What I love most about what I do is getting a whole group of people together and getting them all to create something of beauty," says Finney, shown conducting at a recent University Chorale of Boston College rehearsal. (Photos by Lee Pellegrini)
Finney, a skilled keyboardist, conductor of the chorale and the symphony orchestra at Boston College, and the man who brings the Hallelujah Chorus to Boston each Christmas as chorus master of the Handel and Haydn Society, had never before played the piece, Bach's "Cantata No. 170."

He had all of a day to prepare for his three-concert stint Jan. 17, 18 and 21 at Symphony Hall.

"Thursday night, I worked on it for two hours," he said. "I got up early the next morning and practiced, then practiced all afternoon at my church, then played Friday night with the Boston Symphony." His Saturday evening performance with the orchestra under Dutch conductor Ton Koopman was broadcast live over WCRB-FM.

One of the most respected artists on the Boston classical music scene, Finney also is among the busiest. His schedule book is more tightly packed than an orchestral score.

Last week, Finney, now in his 10th season as director of the University Chorale of Boston College, was readying the 175-member group for its winter concert this past Sunday at Trinity Chapel on Newton Campus, and for departure today on a performance tour of Ireland that lasts until March 8.

He also was preparing the 50-member Boston College Symphony Orchestra, which he has directed for four years, for its winter concert this past Saturday in Gasson 100.

Finney conducts five concerts a year at BC with the chorale and four with the orchestra.

Meantime, as associate conductor and chorus master of the Handel and Haydn Society since 1990, he has readied the singers who present Handel's "Messiah" at Symphony Hall each Christmas season, conducting the performance himself in 1997. He is involved in staging four or five concerts a year with the H&H Society, America's premier chorus and period orchestra: This coming month, he conducts Bach's "Cantata 196" and "Mass in A Major" on March 28 at Jordan Hall and March 30 at Sanders Theater.

Finney also directs the 90-member Heritage Chorale of Framingham in three concerts a year, and for the past 18 years has served as music director at Wellesley Hills Congregational Church.

"The fact is, he's one of the most sought-after musicians in Boston," said Rev. T. Frank Kennedy, SJ, director of the Jesuit Institute at Boston College and a musicologist who specializes in early Jesuit chamber operas.

"He's one of the most focused people I've ever met," said Fr. Kennedy. "He's able to use every minute of his time. When you couple his drive with his incredible talent, you have this diamond. He's a gem."

BC Symphony Orchestra second violin Sarah Walsh '03 said the ensemble has doubled in size under Finney's direction the past four years, while taking on more challenging pieces. At its concert this past weekend the orchestra performed Mozart's "Piano Concerto in A" and "Symphony No. 4" by Dvorak.

"He's always, always at rehearsal and is loath to cancel it," she said. "He is genuinely devoted to the students. If you were to sum him up in one word, it would be 'devotion.'"

University Chorale tenor Rev. Walter Conlan, SJ, said the conductor embodies the Ignatian ideal: "He's so structured and so good. He doesn't waste a second.

"The image I have of John Finney is that he's a Jesuit in lay clothes."

Finney, a product of Oberlin College and Boston Conservatory of Music who plays organ, harpsichord and piano, is very good at what he does. And he will tell you as much.

"It's something I have a gift for. It's something I've learned not to be modest about," he said. "My vocation is to use that gift and to develop it the best I can.

"What I love most about what I do is getting a whole group of people together and getting them all to create something of beauty. My driving motivation is that sense of bringing individuals together to do what no one can do on one's own. One singer can't make the sound of a chorus; one violinist can't make the sound of an orchestra.

"When it works, it's magic. It can be mystical. It's always powerful. One-hundred-seventy-five voices together have been described as a wave of sound that washes over you."

As it happens, the conductor who brings the sacred music of the Catholic Church to life at Boston College is himself a Protestant.

Great music, he said, knows no sectarian boundaries. "Much of the great choral music over the centuries was written for the Catholic Church," Finney said. "We have this great treasury of music. It's the best music in the world.

"There's something about great music that is transcendent and subliminal. It gets at you from the inside. It hits you in the heart.

"I'll bet there are people who are moved to tears by Mozart's 'Requiem' who don't know what the words mean, who are moved to tears by 'Ave Verum Corpus' who don't know what the words mean."

Finney said to expect less than excellence of himself would be to fail his musicians, his audience - and the great composers.

"A conductor is meant to act as a conduit between the composer and the audience," he said. "If I do the job well, then Mozart can speak to an audience, even though he's been dead for 200 years."

This week's trip to Ireland will be the BC Chorale's third under Finney. He has traveled with the group previously to Prague and to Puerto Rico, and twice to Rome, where the chorale has sung for Pope John Paul II.

The chorale will sing at two concerts and a Mass on the upcoming Irish swing through Kilkenny, Dublin and Galway. Included in the repertoire will be African-American spirituals, Mozart's "Ave Verum Corpus," Maurice Durufle's "Ubi Caritas et Amor," and selections of Mozart's "Requiem" and the Theodore DuBois' "Seven Last Words of Christ."

"I always try to choose music of the absolute highest quality," Finney said. "It's my duty. You can't have this amazing assemblage of talented singers and musicians and not have them perform music of the highest quality."


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