Photo by Lee Pellegrini
It will be the end of a musical era when Boston College maestro John Finney—one of the most important and highly regarded Boston-area musicians—wields his baton for the final time at the University Commencement in May.
As director of the University Chorale of Boston College for the past three decades—and conductor of the Boston College Symphony Orchestra since 1999, when he also became Distinguished Artist-In-Residence—Finney estimates that he has given more than 500 concerts, both on and off campus. The Chorale has performed under his direction throughout Greater Boston and in many of the world's major cities including New York City, Dublin (most recently during this year's spring break), Madrid, Prague, Vienna, and Rome.
Prior to his retirement at the end of the academic year, he will perform “The Power of Music: John Finney’s Farewell Concerts” April 14-16 in Trinity Chapel on Newton Campus. On May 3, he will present his last lecture on the same topic in Gasson Hall 100. These appearances are supported by the Institute for the Liberal Arts and the Music Department.
“John Finney's musical leadership at Boston College for the past 30 years has been a tremendous gift to our entire community, and most especially to our students,” said Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences Dean Gregory Kalscheur, S.J. “Performing in a choral or orchestral ensemble is a deeply formative experience that helps each of the individual musicians contribute to the creation of a common good of great beauty. John has led thousands of Boston College students into this powerful experience, and the consistent excellence of the Chorale, the Orchestra, and all of the ensembles that John has conducted over his many years of service on the Heights is a wonderful manifestation of the University's motto, ‘Ever to Excel.’”
The main composition of Finney’s final concerts will be the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, the “Choral Symphony," Beethoven’s setting of the poem “Ode to Joy” by Friedrich von Schiller for four vocal soloists, chorus, and orchestra. Originally planned as the finale, in April 2020, of a year-long concert series, the performances were cancelled due to the pandemic. Finney said he is delighted to be able to present the work for his final concerts, and to do so in Trinity Chapel, where he has conducted so many over the past three decades.
In the following Q&A, Finney talks about his rich history at Boston College, and recalls favorite concerts and singular experiences as an esteemed member of the University community. He will not look to conduct another chorale or orchestra, he says, because nothing could compare to his involvement with the Boston College groups. He affirms that he has loved every minute of his work as a conductor and performer, but now looks forward to enjoying the work of other conductors as an audience member.
What has been most rewarding to you, personally and professionally, in your roles at Boston College?
Having the opportunity to work with thousands of Boston College students, whose talent, creativity, enthusiasm, and commitment have been the source of boundless inspiration to me for 30 years.
In what ways have you seen the Chorale and Symphony Orchestra, and their members, evolve?
Many aspects of the University Chorale of Boston College and the Boston College Symphony Orchestra have been consistently sustained and maintained by the members of these ensembles over these years, including the passion for creating beautiful music, and the great joy of being part of a large ensemble composed of fellow students—as well as Boston College alumni, faculty, and staff members. Over these 30 years, I have seen Boston College students “evolve” by being able to maintain and sustain these great traditions in the face of the ever-changing world, and in the face of life-changing world events.
Given the benefit of your experience, and your passion for music, what lessons have you tried to impart to your student members?
I have always tried to impart the sense of profound respect for the music itself. As performers, we musicians have a sacred responsibility to perform a composer’s music at the highest level of excellence we can achieve, whether that music is a simple melody or a complex choral or orchestral work. Whenever we perform a composer’s music, we become the conduit through which the music of that composer can directly reach the hearts and souls of our audience members.
In turn, what have you learned from your students?
I have learned how important it is to each individual member to know how valuable their presence is, and also how the shared experience of being a part of a large musical ensemble can lead to friendships that will last a lifetime.
What have been some of your most memorable performances during your BC career?
There are so many! Here are just a few:
—My very first concert with the University Chorale in 1993, at the first “Pops on the Heights” concert; I prepared the Chorale to sing under the baton of the great John Williams.
—Conducting the University Chorale in singing for Pope Saint John Paul II at a private audience in Rome in 1997.
—Conducting the University Chorale in giving the world premiere of BC faculty member Thomas Oboe Lee’s “Mass for the Holy Year 2000,” in April 2000.
—Conducting the Boston College Symphony Orchestra and the University Chorale at Boston’s Symphony Hall in 2013, as part of Boston College’s Sesquicentennial concert. That concert included Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait” with [alumnus] Chris O’Donnell as narrator.
—Conducting the Boston College Symphony Orchestra and the University Chorale at Boston’s Symphony Hall in 2018, in celebration of my 25th anniversary at Boston College.
In fact, every concert I’ve ever conducted with my Boston College ensembles has been memorable!
The title of your final concerts and last lecture is "The Power of Music." What does that strong title mean to you, and what do you hope to convey to audiences?
I am indebted to my friend and colleague [Music Department] Professor Jeremiah McGrann for coming up with this title, “The Power of Music,” which I embrace. I am also grateful to him for writing a grant proposal to the Institute for the Liberal Arts; these final concerts and my last lecture are made possible by the generous ILA grant.
Having conducted hundreds upon hundreds of concerts over my career, I have experienced firsthand how music has the power to inspire both performers and listeners. Music can move you to tears; music can get your heart racing with exhilaration; music can soothe and console; music can heal. Music can enhance and magnify a poet’s text in ways that reach directly into hearts and souls of performers and listeners alike. I hope that our performances of Beethoven’s setting of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” will convey all these things to our listeners, and I hope to touch on all these things in my last lecture. It is particularly fitting for me that my last concerts include the “Ode to Joy,” because my entire time at Boston College has been filled with joy!
If you could collaborate with and conduct any musician, living or deceased, in concert, who would it be and why?
I think I would be too much in awe of any of the world’s greatest musicians to actually “conduct” them! I would love to be conducted by Johann Sebastian Bach. My “dream concert” as a conductor would be to assemble in one place all the singers and instrumentalists I’ve worked with over the past decades, and to make glorious music together with them.
For information on the times of John Finney’s last three concerts—which are free but require tickets (general admission, but limited seating) via the Robsham Theater Arts Center Box Office—and last lecture, visit events.bc.edu or email email@example.com
Rosanne Pellegrini | University Communications | April 2023