Joseph Flummerfelt, the preeminent American choral conductor of his generation and a collaborator with some of the nation’s most renowned orchestras and maestros, died Friday in Indianapolis. He was 82.
The cause was a stroke, according to the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. in Charleston, S.C., where he was the director of choral activities for 37 years until retiring in 2013.
Mr. Flummerfelt played an outsize, if not always highly visible, role in American classical music. He prepared choruses for hundreds of concerts by the New York Philharmonic and a host of other famous orchestras and maestros, and he trained generations of singers and conductors at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J.
He often readied choirs behind the scenes, then handed them off to more famous conductors, who would lead them onstage for the final rehearsals and performances. He was the de facto chorus master of the New York Philharmonic for decades, preparing nearly 600 choral performances with the orchestra from 1971 through 2016.
And when other top orchestras and conductors — a pantheon that included Claudio Abbado, Leonard Bernstein, Pierre Boulez, Carlo Maria Giulini, and Riccardo Muti — needed choruses for their requiems, masses, and choral symphonies, they often turned to Mr. Flummerfelt.
Along the way, he became the best-known American choral conductor since Robert Shaw, the great chorus-builder and conductor, who had been a friend and mentor.
Mr. Flummerfelt conducted the Westminster Choir, the larger Westminster Symphonic Choir, and the New York Choral Artists, which he founded in 1979. His choirs were featured on some 45 recordings, several of which won Grammy Awards, including one of Mahler’s Symphony No.3, conducted by Bernstein, and another of John Adams’s “On the Transmigration of Souls,” a work commissioned after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, with Lorin Maazel conducting the Philharmonic.
Mr. Flummerfelt played key roles as well at the Spoleto Festival U.S.A. and the Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto, Italy.
He often spoke of a need for flexibility in performance — warning that trying to “machine-in every detail” could “straitjacket” performers and stifle creativity.
Joseph Ross Flummerfelt was born on Feb. 24, 1937, in Vincennes, Ind., where his father, John Ross Flummerfelt, was a funeral director and his mother, Mavorette (McGinnis) Flummerfelt, was a piano teacher. When he was about 5, he recalled, he came home from hearing her play the organ at the First Baptist Church, sat down at the family piano, and picked out the hymn “Stand Up for Jesus” by ear. He had found music.
Mr. Flummerfelt’s survivors include a brother, Kent, and two sisters, Pam Flummerfelt Rappaport and Carol Flummerfelt Helmling.