Tuesday, November 11, 2014

James Erb (1926-2014)

James Erb, longtime music professor and choral director at the University of Richmond and founding director of the Richmond Symphony Chorus, has died at the age of 88.

Erb came to the University of Richmond in 1954 and led its choirs until his retirement from the UR faculty in 1994. He was a three-time recipient of the university's Distinguished Educator Award.

Several generations of alumni of his college choruses are active as singers, teachers and church musicians throughout the region.

“James Erb’s pervasive influence on Richmond’s musical scene cannot be exaggerated,” writes John McKay, a student of Erb’s at UR. “[H]e was a consummate musician whose mastery of choral techniques enabled him to inspire, cajole, and demand excellence from all of his singers.”

A scholar of Renaissance music and participant in a project to publish the works of the 16th-century Flemish composer Roland de Lassus (also known as Orlando di Lasso), Erb edited Lassus 110 magnificats.

He probably will be remembered less widely for that work, however, than for an arrangement of the folk song “Shenandoah” that he prepared for a 1971 European tour by the UR Choir. It has become a staple of the choral repertory in this country and abroad, has been recorded by many ensembles, including the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Chanticleer, and often has been used in films and other media.

(Erb liked to joke that royalties from “Shenandoah” financed many family vacations and “a certain amount of bourbon.”)

James Bryan Erb was born in La Junta, CO, to a family of educators descended from German Mennonite émigrés. He began singing in childhood, performing for a time as a boy chorister at the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John’s in Denver. As a teen-ager he was a student of the pioneering female conductor Antonia Brico. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Colorado College, continued his studies at the Universität für Musik und darstellende Kunst Wien (Vienna), earned master’s degrees from Indiana and Harvard universities, and a doctorate from Harvard.

In 1948, he sang in the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, performing Beethoven’s “Missa solemnis” under Robert Shaw’s direction. “It was a Pentecostal experience,” Erb recalled in a 2007 Style Weekly interview. “I knew this was what I had to do with my life.”

While he was organizing the Richmond Symphony Chorus, he prevailed upon the orchestra to engage Shaw to conduct Beethoven’s epic Mass setting in the chorus’ debut, which took place in December 1971.

In nearly four decades as director of the Symphony Chorus, Erb prepared the ensemble in most of the standard choral-orchestral repertory, as well as then-rarities such as Mozart’s arrangement of Handel’s “Messiah.” He also conducted the orchestra and chorus a number of times; his last such engagement was in 2003, conducting Bach’s Mass in B minor.

He retired as the chorus’ director in 2007, but sang among the tenors when the ensemble marked its 40th anniversary three years ago in “Missa solemnis,” conducted by his successor, Erin R. Freeman, who holds what is now called the James Erb Choral Chair.

Barbara Baker, the Symphony Chorus’ manager, recalls that at first rehearsals Erb “occasionally asked for a show of hands from those who had never sung [the work] before. ‘How I envy you!’ he would say; they would have the experience of discovering a wonderful new piece of music. His enthusiasm and passion were infectious, and his rehearsals could be unexpectedly thrilling when the sound met his expectation of what the music required.”

“[T]hose of us who toured Europe with the University of Richmond Choir had the rare opportunity to witness Erbs genius in a very personal way,” John McKay recallsWe were the singers for whom Erb created his captivating arrangement of ‘Shenandoah.’ Throughout the weeks of preparation, we were there as Erb rewrote, refined and polished his creation at each rehearsal. During this process, a very special bond developed that has kept teacher and students close for over four decades.” 

By the time Erb founded the Symphony Chorus, he already was directing a non-collegiate choral group singing major repertory. In 1966, he led a reunion Chorus of Alumni and Friends of the University of Richmond. Opting to continue performing, adopting the acronym CAFUR, the group became a fixture on the Richmond concert scene for 28 years. Among other works, CAFUR performed the Bach passions (with its audience following the tradition of singing along in chorales), as well as infrequently heard pieces such as the Vespers of Rachmaninoff, the work the ensemble sang in its 1994 farewell performance.

Erb was the patriarch of one of Richmond’s most musically active families. His widow, Ruth Urbancic Erb, was a violist in the symphony for more than 40 years; his son, Martin G. Erb, is an active choral singer; and his daughter-in-law, Hope Armstrong Erb, is a pianist and director of the Greater Richmond Children’s Choir.

A memorial service for James Erb will be scheduled later. Memorial donations may be made to the Richmond Symphony Chorus, the Greater Richmond Children’s Choir or the charity of your choice.

David Fisk, the symphony’s executive director, recalls “meeting Jim Erb soon after I became executive director and was immediately taken by his fierce passion and consummate musicianship. . . . [H]e was, above all else, a musician, whose good opinion one wanted to earn and to keep. We will miss him very much, but his legacy in Richmond and his reputation in the field of American choral music will live on forever.”

Fisk says the orchestra will plan a memorial concert for Erb next season, featuring “a piece that he particularly loved.”

An especially fine performance of Erb’s “Shenandoah” arrangement, sung by the Choir of New College, Oxford:


Erb relates “part of the story of my life” in this excerpt from a documentary made by John Moon of LifeJourney Films:


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UPDATE (Nov. 12): More tributes to James Erb from his successor and past and present music directors of the Richmond Symphony:

– Erin R. Freeman (director, Richmond Symphony Chorus): “One of the final pieces [Erb] prepared with the Richmond Symphony Chorus was the Brahms Requiem.  I distinctly remember sitting in the audience, poised to take over the legacy that he created, in awe and fear of the task at hand.  Since then, however, I have learned that Jim, through his attention to detail, determination, and musical integrity, set up his legacy in such a way that, as the final movement of the Brahms’ says: he may now rest from his labors, as his work will follow after him.”

– Steven Smith (Richmond Symphony music director): “[Erb’s] love for the collegiality of the chorus, his wealth of experience and sincere and deep commitment to every moment of the music was truly inspiring.  His legacy, not just here in Richmond but in the wider world of music will always be remembered with profound love and respect.”

– Jacques Houtmann (symphony music director, 1971-86): “What a great man, a great musician [Erb] was. . . . I will never forget how he was able to generate such an energy in order to convince the [chorus] to give the best in the vast repertoire he was involved in.”

– George Manahan (symphony music director, 1987-98): “The Richmond Symphony was blessed to have the charismatic leadership of my friend and colleague Jim Erb for so many years.  We performed some of the most challenging choral masterpieces in the repertory, including Bernstein, Walton, Messiaen, Brahms, and Verdi among others.  Never did I think there was a work too tough for the symphony chorus with Jim at the helm.”

– Mark Russell Smith (symphony music director, 1999-2009): “I count the many collaborations with Jim and the incredible chorus he created among my most cherished artistic memories of my tenure in Richmond.  He was a man of great passion and integrity, and brought every ounce of his being to bringing music to life for both his chorus and his audience.  We are all richer musicians and human beings for having had the privilege of working with Jim.”