Arts Features

“It Was Always About the Kids”: After 30 Years at BC, John Finney Leaves a Legacy of Passion and Care

For John Finney, it always comes back to the students. 

As director of the University Chorale of Boston College since 1993 and conductor of the Boston College Symphony Orchestra since 1999, Finney has fostered a unique community within both groups that emphasizes individuality and passion for music. 

“One of my philosophies has always been that the individual members, every single one is important in the group,” Finney said. “And that’s … a big challenge to make sure that every single individual in a large group feels totally validated.” 

The Power of Music: John Finney’s Farewell Concerts, which took place on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, was the last series of concerts in which Finney conducted both the Chorale and the Orchestra together. The concerts were a celebration of Finney’s legacy at BC. 

Finney, who is in his 30th and final year at BC, has touched the lives of numerous students by connecting with them individually and supporting them beyond their roles in the Chorale and the Orchestra, according to Sandra Hebert, associate professor of the practice in the music department and director of the Chamber Music ensemble. 

“One of the things with John is that he really makes an effort to know all of the students, and he makes that connection with them and is supportive of other things that they do,” she said. “The kids just feel such a connection to him, and that’s true to the Orchestra and that’s true to the Chorale.” 

Finney’s impact extends beyond BC as he is a highly regarded musician in the Boston area. Finney has served as conductor of the Heritage Chorale in Framingham, Mass. and associate conductor and chorusmaster of the Handel and Haydn Society. He has been the director of music at Wellesley Hills Congregational Church since 1984. 

Finney’s reputation precedes him, and Hebert said it was a big deal for BC to employ him as conductor of the University Chorale in 1993. Despite his prestige, Finney has never lost sight of what is most important: his students. 

“He was never above the kids,” Hebert said. “It was always about the kids.”

When Finney took on the additional role of conductor of the Orchestra in 1999, he was given the title of distinguished artist-in-residence at BC. In 2020, he received the Alfred Nash Patterson Lifetime Achievement Award from Choral Arts New England, which recognized his contributions to choral music in New England. 

Throughout his time at BC, Finney has conducted the Chorale and the Orchestra for performances at various venues, including Fenway Park, Boston Symphony Hall, under a waterfall in Puerto Rico, and in front of a private audience with Pope Saint John Paul II in Vatican City.

Elizabeth Ratliff, vice president and treasurer of the Chorale and CSOM ’23, said Finney has a quiet confidence about him and does not expect recognition for his many achievements. 

“Anyone that knows him or has met him within the musical scene will just rave about John and you would never know it from talking to him,” she said. “You know, he downplays all of those amazing achievements that he’s had, and just, you know, he doesn’t need you to know how talented he is and how recognized he is in the community.” 

Bridget Corcoran, social director of the Chorale and MCAS ’23, said Finney goes to lengths to be present at any performances that his students are involved in outside of the Chorale and the Orchestra. 

“If anyone in the Chorale is in a performance, he makes sure to come to the performance,” Corcoran said. “He makes sure to send you a note if you’re in the performance about one thing you did really well. Whether you’re a freshman or a senior, no matter how well he knows you.” 

Ryan Kitz, president of the Chorale and MCAS ’23, recalled Finney attending a theatre performance he was involved in early on in his time in the Chorale. 

“I remember that same freshman fall I was in a show and he came to it and actually reached out to me personally after to say what a good job I did,” Kitz said.  

Finney said recognizing students’ individual talent is vital to encourage continued student participation and motivation, especially due to the large sizes of the Chorale and the Orchestra. 

“If you’re in a group of a hundred people and you miss a rehearsal and nobody notices, then what’s your incentive to come back?” Finney said. “Everybody needs to know how important they are.” 

Finney holds yearly auditions for returning members of the Chorale, not to make cuts but to personally reconnect with each member, according to Kitz. 

“Every year, we don’t make people who already got into chorale like re-auditions with cuts, but we do have re-auditions just so John gets to hear everyone’s voice individually and talk to them directly,” Kitz said. “I remember that was the reason he wanted to do that, is just to get interaction with everybody. He makes such a conscious effort to reach out to everybody in the group, to get to know them, to know their names.” 

Ratliff said Finney further emphasizes individuality by recognizing the unique sound produced by a particular group of performers. 

“One of my favorite things that he says actually is, ‘This sound, with this exact group of people, with these musicians has never been made before,’” Ratliff said. “‘Just be in this moment and experience that sound being created for the first time.’”

The program of Finney’s farewell concerts began with “Hail! Alma Mater!” by T.J. Hurley, who graduated from BC in 1885. Finney invited the crowd to stand and sing along, and the lyrics were reminders of the emotion surrounding his retirement. 

“Hail! Alma Mater! Thy praise we sing / Fondly thy mem’ries round our heart still cling,” the Chorale sang, accompanied by the Orchestra and the voices of the crowd. 

The Orchestra then skillfully performed the movement Allegro con brio from Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C minor. The well-known movement began with a sudden intensity, heightened by the Orchestra’s rhythmic ability and experienced sound. This dark, deep tone was coupled with moments of sweet tranquility. A solo oboe intervened, sounding tired after the Orchestra’s profound sound, and led into the end of the movement. 

Finney explained that the following songs were a collection of the groups’ favorites, including “Tollite Hostias” by Camille Saint-Saëns and “Beati quorum via” by Charles Villiers Stanford. The groups emanated happiness in their performances of these well-loved songs. 

The next song, “My Triumph,” was composed by Corcoran and Victoria Khanlian, a member of the Chorale and CSOM ’23, and dedicated to Finney and his time at BC. The composition is set to the poem “My Triumph” by John Greenleaf Whittier. Friday’s performance marked the piece’s world premiere for a public audience. 

The Chamber Singers, an offset of the Chorale, performed this piece in a solemnly sweet manner. Emotion radiated through their voices as they dedicated their performance to Finney, who described the piece as one of the most beautiful gifts he has ever received. 

Corcoran and Khanlian both said the performance of the piece at Finney’s farewell concerts was a huge honor. They said that together, they chose Whittier’s poem because its lyrics reflected their feelings toward Finney’s retirement. 

“The first line of the poem is ‘The autumn-time has come,’ and I think throughout the poem there’s a feeling of loss, but there’s also a feeling of reverberation,” Corcoran said. “I think we wanted a poem that balanced a sense of closure with a sense of hope.” 

The concert’s finale was the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, Op. 125, known as “Ode to Joy.” The Orchestra spent much of the 2019–20 school year preparing the entirety of the symphony, which runs for over an hour, but they never got to perform it due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Finney. 

“It’s definitely like a full circle moment, just ’cause we played every single movement, practiced it for months, like back before COVID,” Rachel Ruggera, principal cellist of the Orchestra and MCAS ’23, said. “And then it was all kind of, like, all the sudden we had to go home and it was like unresolved or unfinished. So now it’s finally, it’s fitting as his big finale.” 

The movement, which ran about 25 minutes, was performed by both the Orchestra and the Chorale, as well as guest soloists Patrice Tiedemann, Cindy M. Vredeveld, Michael Calmés, and Daniel Brevik. The movement depicted feelings of joy and resilience, as the Orchestra finally performed a section of the piece they tirelessly prepared years ago. 

The ending of the finale was greeted by the audience’s roaring applause and a standing ovation to recognize Finney’s career and lasting legacy at BC.

“One of my best teachers imparted this to me when he said, ‘When a performer is doing their job the best, they become a conduit for the composer to speak directly to the audience,’” Finney said. “And that’s, that’s something I always tried to impart.” 

April 19, 2023