When Kaylee Drew walked into her audition for University Chorale of Boston College as a freshman, director John Finney already knew each auditioning singer by name.
After three years in University Chorale, Drew, Lynch ’22, said that she has witnessed Finney’s continual encouragement as he shares his vast musical expertise with the choir.
“He is one of the most knowledgeable, dedicated, and passionate leaders I have ever met,” Drew, now the vice president and treasurer of University Chorale, said. “There’s so much joy that he brings to each rehearsal.”
Finney, who has been the director of University Chorale since 1993 and the BC Symphony Orchestra since 1999, was honored by the Choral Arts New England Board with its Alfred Nash Patterson Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020. Named after Patterson, a conductor who revitalized choral music in Boston beginning in the 1950s, the award recognizes Finney’s experience directing both professional and amateur choirs.
Decades before earning the prestigious award, Finney’s life as a musician began in his hometown of Marshallville, Ohio. The tunes of the piano filled his childhood home as his four older siblings learned to play. Following in their footsteps, Finney took his first piano lessons in second grade.
By sixth grade, Finney was completely captivated by the musical life.
“I loved music,” Finney said. “I mean, that was just my thing that brought me the most joy all the way through grade school and high school.”
Finney later took organ lessons and began playing as an organist for his church at the age of 12, starting on his path to become a professional musician. As a member of his high school’s choir and band, Finney played the flute and clarinet before studying organ performance at the Oberlin College Conservatory of Music.
After graduating from Oberlin in 1978, Finney moved to Boston to work as a professional musician and played instruments to accompany choirs. From his seat behind the organ, Finney observed the teaching methods of the choir directors.
“I learned so much about how to conduct choirs, how to work with a choir, how to teach music to a choir, and I gradually took on more and more of that kind of work,” Finney said.
Finney accepted his first position as choir director in the Boston area at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Newton Lower Falls. During his 43 years as a director, Finney has conducted the Heritage Chorale, a choir in Framingham, Mass. that was founded in 1937, and the Handel and Haydn Society, a historically influential choir in the Boston area. He has also served as director of music at Wellesley Hills Congregational Church since 1984.
Finney said he always knew he wanted to be a musician and a teacher but never expected that he would fall in love with choral directing.
“The more I did it, the more I loved every aspect of being a choral conductor—working with individual voices, the combinations of voices, the kind of music,” Finney said.
When the position of director of University Chorale at BC opened in 1993, Finney said he immediately knew he wanted to apply. During the hiring process, Finney guided the choir through two songs and said he was impressed—but not surprised—with the singers’ musical skills.
Beyond the singers’ abilities, it was his meeting with student officers in which they told him about the administrative work they do to keep the choir running that made the most significant impression on him.
Finney accepted the job as director, and over his 29 years at BC, he has seen generations of student officers pass on the leadership and traditions of the chorale that he noted in that first meeting.
Jeremiah McGrann, assistant chair and director of undergraduate studies in the music department, said he remembers when Finney was hired and his first years as the chorale’s director.
“People just automatically fell in love with John immediately,” McGrann said. “What comes through is his sense of training the chorus going towards perfection—getting the best out of the group—while maintaining an incredible sense of identity of the group.”
As he curates the pieces that University Chorale performs each season, Finney said he is careful to maintain a balance between traditional works that the chorale consistently performs—including “In My Father’s House” and “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”—and new pieces that he thinks will work well for the group of 130 singers.
During the year, Finney prepares the chorale for concerts such as Pops on the Heights in September and the University Chorale’s annual Christmas concert in December. When BC is on Spring Break, Finney takes the chorale to perform at churches in Europe nearly every year, and in 1997, the group performed in Rome for Pope John Paul II.
Finney is a meticulous leader and plans each rehearsal for these performances down to the minute while emphasizing the importance of each member’s contribution, according to Drew.
“He always says ‘When you’re not here, it’s not chorale. It’s chorale minus you,’” Drew said.
The community that Finney has fostered over the years is on display when alumni of the chorale return to BC for the annual Christmas concert. Finney invites the former members in the audience to stand up and sing the chorus to “Hallelujah” with current members.
“There will be 50 to 60 people coming out of the audience, and I know every one of them, you know,” Finney said. “Because it’s not only a family while they’re at BC, but the chorale community has really stayed a wonderful family over the years.”
After the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the awards ceremony in 2020, the Choral Arts New England Board held an event to honor Finney and grant recipients at Wellesley Hills Congregational Church in October of 2021. Five former presidents of University Chorale came to the event, and Finney performed with a former student, Mary Hubbell, BC ’97, now a professional singer and instructor.
The ceremony and performance marked a moment when Finney’s career as University Chorale’s director came full circle, as he was honored by both the board and members of the community he has helped build over his years at BC.
“He really creates an environment that welcomes anyone, no matter your musical ability [or] whatever experience you have had in the past,” Drew said. “He creates an environment that’s dedicated, not only to making beautiful music, but also to making a community on campus.”
Featured Image by Sam Zhai