Richard Westenburg: An Appreciation

Richard Westenburg, the founder of New York's famed chorus and orchestra, Musica Sacra, died of colon cancer on February 20, 2008. Westenburg had been an important fixture on the New York scene for more than 40 years.

At one time he held simultaneous appointments with Musica Sacra, the Collegiate Chorale, St. John the Divine Church, and the Juilliard School. His annual performances with Musica Sacra of Handel's Messiah and his RCA recording of the work in 1981 were considered by many to be a paradigm of balance between historically informed performance, and lush, rich-textured choral and orchestral sound.

A native of Minneapolis, Westenburg studied organ as an undergraduate at Lawrence University in Wisconsin. He then earned a master's degree in musicology and film from the University of Minnesota and studied music in Paris with, among others, Jean Langlais and Nadia Boulanger. He studied theology at the Union Theological Seminary, where he later taught in Union's School of Sacred Music. A nationally known organist, he performed recitals throughout the U.S. and directed music at some of New York's most prestigious churches, including Central Presbyterian Church and Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. At the time of his death, he was the director of music at the Reform Church of Bronxville, New York.

Westenburg founded Musica Sacra at Central Presbyterian Church in 1964. Composer and conductor Alice Parker recalled, "Dick came into a lively and active choral field in New York and made an immediate impression with his musicologically-based and evocative performances." After becoming independent from the church in the early 1970s, Musica Sacra's concerts at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art enjoyed great critical acclaim. The Basically Bach Festival, which Westenburg founded in 1979, further cemented his reputation as a gifted scholar and performer, and his recordings for BMG, CBS, Deutsche Grammophon, and Vanguard displayed a command of repertoire that ran the gamut from medieval to contemporary music.

I first met Dick Westenburg at a Chorus America Conference in 1983 in Philadelphia (he was a charter member of Chorus America and served for a number of years on the board of directors). More than 20 years my senior, he was nonetheless happy and willing to share his good counsel and ideas with me. In 1995, I was honored to be invited by Dick to appear with many others on a benefit concert with Musica Sacra at Town Hall. "It's like driving a luxury car," he told me, referring to the experience of working with the finest professional singers in New York. "It would drive itself if you let it, but it's much better if you steer it and press the gas pedal like you know where you're going."

His performances always impressed me for the balance they struck between muscularity and elegance. In music from the traditional canon, he was no stranger to the latest research and the most current trends in performance practice, but his concerts were never fussy affairs. His approach to new music was similar: He always honored the intent of the composer without subjugating his own formidable, multi-faceted musical personality. "He was a great musician," said Dave Brubeck, who also appeared on that 1995 concert, and whose music Dick championed. "He brought people together beautifully, and our concerts were always joyous occasions." Kent Tritle, who studied with Westenburg at Juilliard, and who will succeed him as music director of Musica Sacra, recalls Dick's sense of personal responsibility. "He really impressed on me that if things aren't going well, it's probably the conductor's fault.

Chorus America members of a certain age will recall Dick's memorable performance of the St. Matthew Passion at the 1994 Conference in New York that included all of the attendees singing the chorales from the balcony of Carnegie Hall. Richard Westenburg has had an enormous influence on our field. He leaves a singular legacy, wonderful memories of a discursive wit, a lack of artifice, and a lasting benefaction of talent and purpose that will be missed and honored for years to come.

This article is adapted from The Voice, Spring 2008.