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Originally published June 27, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified June 27, 2007 at 11:37 AM

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Chorusmaster George Fiore retires from a second satisfying career

The adage tells us that "No one is indispensable. " But George Fiore comes pretty close. Fiore, who officially retires Friday from the Seattle...

Seattle Times music critic

Concert preview

George Fiore's retirement becomes official Friday evening, at the Seattle Symphony performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 3, when he assumes the status of Conductor Emeritus following a presentation by Seattle Symphony music director (and the evening's conductor) Gerard Schwarz; 8 p.m. Friday, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $15-$89 (206-215-4747, www.seattlesymphony.org).

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The adage tells us that "No one is indispensable."

But George Fiore comes pretty close.

Fiore, who officially retires Friday from the Seattle Symphony as associate conductor for choral activities, is a venerable conductor, pianist, organist and coach who has profoundly influenced many of the Northwest's major musical institutions. In addition to the Symphony, that list includes Seattle Opera (where he was chorusmaster for 17 years), Northwest Boychoir, and several churches with big music programs: St. James Cathedral, Seattle First United Methodist Church, Seattle First Presbyterian Church and Prince of Peace Lutheran Church (in Shoreline, where Fiore is currently organist).

Fiore will be 81 next month, but he radiates an energy and enthusiasm of a guy decades younger. As you wander through his Magnolia house, which looks like a particularly choice piano showroom, he sits down at the various keyboards — such as his lovely 1876 Broadwood — to show off their unique sounds. And just like the born teacher he is (he has taught at the University of Washington, Seattle Pacific University, and Cornish College), Fiore sends out a volley of piano hints: "Press the keys, don't strike them. Try rotating the wrist a bit in this passage." (His next keyboard appearance, by the way, is April 4, when he plays the Grieg Concerto with the Thalia Symphony under the direction of Eric Hanson. He also will play the Liszt "Transcendental Etudes" in recitals at yet to be announced.)

This is a man who is loved by his singers. Soprano Anne Foster Angelou, who sang with him both in the Seattle Opera Chorus and the Seattle Symphony Chorale, says: "I loved working with George for his professional and personal qualities. He loves music, is a superb musician and pianist, and is remarkably kind. He is also a gentleman, humble in spite of his talent, experience and knowledge, and cares deeply for the singers and other colleagues with whom he works."

He also knows them all personally, Angelou continues, "expressing concerns about whatever challenges we or our families are facing in our lives."

Over more than six decades of performances, Fiore's career includes everything from the sublime to the ridiculous. Occupying both categories was his organ recital a few years back at the venerable Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, where he forgot his "organ shoes" (organists almost always have a special pair of shoes they reserve for negotiating those tricky foot pedals). He took off his street shoes to play in his stockings, but got a sliver from the wooden pedal in his big toe, and ended up bleeding all over the pedal keyboard. (In traditional trouper fashion, the show did go on.)

"That was quite an experience," Fiore confesses.

"And while I was there, I did hear the proverbial pin drop in those amazing acoustics."

Fiore's love affair with music began when he was 3, and fell in love with the piano — particularly with the music of Chopin. He wanted piano lessons, but his parents hoped instead that he would opt for one of the family's traditional careers, such as chemist or naval officer. It wasn't until young George was 13 that he got those piano lessons, but he made up for lost ground quickly, moving on to the Juilliard School in New York and thereafter performing at that city's Town Hall and around the country. Additionally, he studied at Brooklyn College and the Metropolitan School of Music, and earned a doctorate at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage.

While he was living in New York, Fiore had a formative decade as principal pianist in the voice studio of William Pierce Herman, who taught such opera stars as Patrice Munsel and Roberta Peters. Fiore was especially close to Peters, whom he worked with three times a week.

"In the 10 years there I learned practically everything about voice and repertoire," he says of Herman's studio. "They'd put the score of [the operas] 'Rosenkavalier' or 'Elektra' in front of you and you had to read it."

The New York period also included eight years at the helm of a prize-winning boys' choir at St. Xavier in Brooklyn, where Fiore rehearsed the choristers five mornings a week, and conducted Mozart masses and other great repertoire each Sunday.

Meanwhile, he expanded his instrumental expertise to include the organ, "in order to make a living." In 1967, with his wife and two young children, Claudia and John (who is now an internationally respected conductor in Germany), Fiore moved to Seattle to take on the music directorship at St. James Cathedral. As Seattle Symphony Chorale soprano section leader Barbara Scheel notes, "It's so rare for someone to excel at both the piano and the organ, and George is that rare person."

A year later, Fiore joined Seattle Opera to assume leadership of the resident company of young singers, who performed operas in English during the production's run in the original language with another cast. His playing, coaching and conducting skills soon made a mark at the Opera, and he became first assistant chorusmaster, then chorusmaster.

During those 17 years in that latter post, Fiore's work with the chorus drew international praise from critics who came to hear Seattle Opera productions.

"My last opera was 'Boris Godunov,' " he remembers. "It was fabulous. At the end of the run, I told myself, 'George, it doesn't get any better than this. Time to step down.' "

Not for long though, as around the same time he got a phone call from the Seattle Symphony, which "made me an offer I couldn't refuse. I stayed for seven years, and they have treated me like a king. I was fortunate to succeed a great musician, Abe Kaplan."

It's the singers who work with him who are the fortunate ones, many contend.

"When George prepares a piece, you aren't just learning notes — you're learning the history of the piece, the meaning of the words, what the composer's life was like, what the composer intended," says John Atcheson, bass section leader of the Seattle Symphony Chorale.

"You're also learning about vocal technique, phrasing and musicality. George is not the strictest conductor I have worked with in terms of getting every single note right, but if you dare sing without passion, sensitivity, and awareness, his full wrath is upon you."

One singer, Bernie Lenoue, whose long career singing with Fiore began in the Northwest Boychoir around 1976 and continued 30 years later in the Seattle Symphony Chorale after Lenoue's own choral-director studies, explains why Fiore's influence on his singers is enduring.

"When I joined the Seattle Symphony Chorale in January 2005, it was amazing to sit under George's direction again after nearly 30 years," Lenoue says. "Probably the most profound thing for me was to realize how much of him was now in me as a choir director. Even though I've been in school counseling for many years now, I did teach choir for a while. He would do things in rehearsal and I would just think, oh wow, that's what I do, I got it from him!"

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com

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