By Jim Lowe
When Robert De Cormier was asked the high point of his 20 years directing the Vermont Symphony Orchestra Chorus, he remembered the 2006 performance of Vaughan Williams’ “Dona Nobis Pacem.”
“The Walt Whitman poetry of that piece and the times we live in and his setting of it all came together for me in a very emotional way,” De Cormier said in a 2014 interview at his Belmont home.
“With Haydn’s ‘Mass in Time of War,’ that was really a peace concert — and I meant it to have that element, for the music to be talking about something happening in the world.”
One of the world’s foremost choral conductors, De Cormier long championed peace and humanitarian causes through music. He died Nov. 7 in Rutland at the age of 95, leaving as a legacy a new world of vocal and choral music in his chosen state of Vermont.
His friends and admirers are invited to “A Celebration of the Life and Music of Robert De Cormier (1922-2017),” from 3- 5 p.m. Sunday at Rutland’s Grace Congregational Church, presented by the two Vermont vocal ensembles he created, Counterpoint and the Vermont Symphony Orchestra Chorus. They will join with other local choruses and musicians who worked with him for this musical tribute — and the audience will sing.
Internationally, De Cormier was best known as the longtime music director of the New York Choral Society, as well as for singer Harry Belafonte and the legendary folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary.
“He comes from a gutsy, liberal, far-left background,” Noel Stookey, “Paul” of Peter, Paul and Mary, said on the occasion of De Cormier’s 80th birthday.
“If he didn’t march for the union movement, he was definitely a sympathizer,” Stookey said. “He has a definite sensitivity for working people’s needs in a way that someone with classical training and elite background might not always have.”
De Cormier and his wife Louise, an actress who performed often at the Weston Playhouse, made Vermont home, first part time and then full time, for some 60 years. Here, he not only became the first director of the VSO Chorus, he founded Counterpoint, the state’s only professional vocal ensemble and a resounding success.
When De Cormier received the Vermont Governor’s Award for Excellence in Arts in 2002, then-Lt. Gov. Douglas Racine said, appropriately, “He has touched thousands of people through the power of music. He has become as important to our way of life as cheddar cheese or maple syrup.”
De Cormier was born on Long Island to a middle-class family in 1922, and grew up in the Great Depression in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where his father was a schoolteacher. He attended Maine’s Colby College, playing trumpet and singing in a big band. But because the school lacked a good music department, he left after two years.
In 1942, De Cormier entered the Army and found himself at the European front, first in Belgium, then the Netherlands, then to Germany in the push to the Rhine in November 1944. He was hit by a mortar shell that destroyed his wrist. It took 13 operations to save his hand, and he lost the ability to move his wrist.
In 1946, De Cormier entered New York’s famed Juilliard School of Music on the GI Bill. Fortuitously, it was at that time that Robert Shaw came to Juilliard to teach. Shaw, possibly America’s greatest choral conductor, was to become De Cormier’s major musical influence.
De Cormier was Shaw’s disciple while earning both his undergraduate and master’s degrees there. Shaw’s influence revealed itself in De Cormier’s ability to create beautiful-sounding choruses and emotionally effective performances.
De Cormier’s political interests led him to the folk music circles of the day. He met and befriended the likes of Cisco Houston, Woody Guthrie, Odetta, The Weavers and Pete Seeger.
The night Louise De Cormier, then an aspiring young singer and actress, first saw her husband-to-be, he was playing folk guitar for legendary singer and political activist Paul Robeson at the Freedom Theater. The next day, she auditioned for De Cormier, was accepted, and began touring with the company. They met in February 1950 and were married that August.
After they married, De Cormier took a job teaching at the private Elizabeth Owen High School in Greenwich Village in New York City. One student was to play a major role in De Cormier’s life later on, the late Mary Travers of Peter, Paul and Mary.
Belafonte’s career was beginning to take off, so the singer asked De Cormier to become his music director. For five years, De Cormier arranged and conducted the music for Belafonte’s weekly television show, as well as his live performances.
The De Cormiers later headed for Europe, where he created folk-choral programs for the BBC for three years. Between television seasons — it was live in those days — De Cormier created and toured the Robert De Cormier Singers throughout the United States, performing choral arrangements of folk music.
Still, De Cormier missed the musical depth of the classics. In 1970, that all changed. First, the New York Choral Society, one of the city’s major choruses, asked De Cormier to become its music director. He accepted, and remained for 17 years, performing most of classical music’s popular choral works. Two years later, the respected Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. invited De Cormier to lead its chorus and teach.
Still, De Cormier wasn’t able to forgo folk music entirely. When Peter, Paul and Mary first began to be successful, Travers had asked De Cormier to become the trio’s music director, but he was too busy with other projects. After 10 years, the group disbanded, only to join up again seven years later, and this time Travers was able to recruit De Cormier. He arranged and conducted music for the trio’s final performances, recordings and television specials, including the holiday show for PBS, “Peter, Paul & Mommy Too.”
In 1993, De Cormier was approached by VSO Manager Thomas Philion and Music Director Kate Tamarkin, who wanted him to create the VSO Chorus. It was also through the VSO Chorus that the De Cormiers — Louise was a member — cemented their relationship with Vermont.
In 2000, Robert De Cormier selected 11 members of the VSO Chorus to create a professional vocal ensemble. The group, Counterpoint, soon made itself heard throughout the state, performing concerts and making CDs and even DVDs.
He retired from Counterpoint in 2012, the VSO Chorus in 2014.
“I let go of Counterpoint, and I got used to that. I’ve been going to concerts and loving them, and really appreciating what Nat (Lew, Counterpoint’s new director) has done with them. But, to think of not having any group?” De Cormier said in 2014.
“This will be the first time since I got out of the Army in 1946 that I haven’t been intimately involved in some kind of chorus. I don’t know, what am I going to do?”
Still, until just before his death, De Cormier continued to arrange and compose and — appropriately — conduct in Counterpoint’s peace concerts.
Grace Congregational Church
“A Celebration of the Life and Music of Robert De Cormier (1922-2017)” will be held 3 to 5 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 7, at Grace Congregational Church, 8 Court St. in Rutland. Performers will include the Vermont Symphony Orchestra Chorus, Counterpoint, other local musicians who worked with him, and the audience. Admission is free; for information, go online to www.counterpointchorus.com.