Lowe Down

Larry Gordon, one of Vermont’s foremost and most beloved choral conductors, died Nov. 9 following a bicycle accident. He is pictured conducting a rehearsal of the Onion River Chorus.

Larry Gordon, who likely brought community singing to more Vermonters than anyone in our state’s history, died last week at the age of 76 as the result of a tragic bicycle accident. The accident — with no car involved — occurred Nov. 1, near his Marshfield home, and resulted in serious brain damage; he passed away Nov. 9.

What made Larry so successful and beloved was his irresistible mix of human qualities. His love of people and always seeing the best in them attracted folks to his myriad projects. And his genuine humility helped him, despite being largely self-trained, become an expert in a number of choral traditions, including shape note singing, Eastern European ethnic song, and early Baroque choral music — and he even made forays into contemporary classical.

I met Larry in the 1970s, his Word of Mouth Chorus days, a decade before I began writing for The Times Argus. I remember our wonderful discussions and debates, and I learned plenty from him. He was always interesting — and interested.

A longtime Plainfield resident, Larry has been championing the cause of community choral singing in Vermont since he founded Word of Mouth Chorus in 1973. He created Montpelier’s Onion River Chorus with the late choral conductor Brian Webb in 1978, inviting amateur local singers to learn and perform a broad variety of choral masterpieces — always without an audition.

Still, it’s all well and good to offer lots of opportunity to sing, but that’s just the beginning. Larry’s work with the Onion River Chorus often resulted in surprisingly sophisticated performances, notably of early Baroque music.

Larry was an excellent teacher. With his combination of passion and patience, he cajoled some 60 singers into performing four and five-part works, some in divided choirs, effectively. No, they weren’t a professional choir, but they delivered the joy of the music and were having a great time doing it.

In addition, through the years, Larry became an expert on the early Baroque. He immersed his choir in the time, often adding authentic period instruments, professionally played. Not only the chorus, the audience experienced the joy of the early Baroque in these concerts.

Larry started his choral music leading a madrigal group while in high school in Portland, Oregon. But it is in Vermont, where he moved in 1971, that he has made himself an indispensable part of the music community.

Larry’s discovery of early American Sacred Harp music, called shape-note singing, so-called for its illustrative notation, opened up a whole new world to him and his followers. He actually inspired a statewide movement that has leaked to the nation.

In 1989, Larry founded Village Harmony to share this music with teenagers. The following year, Village Harmony Summer Camps began. After a week of training at home, the ensemble would tour, the first year New England, then in the following years the rest of the country, and finally Europe. Each summer a series of groups, drawing teens from around the country, even the world, has continued this tradition.

Through Village Harmony, Larry has touched the lives of thousands of teenagers. Many have gone on to professional music careers and all benefit from a greater love and understanding of music.

Vermont has been home to two of America’s finest choral conductors, Blanche Moyse and Robert De Cormier, both with national fame. But Larry touched more singers, and possibly more audience members in Vermont than either of those choral superstars.

Larry has done more to bring the joy of community singing to Vermonters than than anyone. We will miss him — it’s impossible to imagine Vermont’s music world without Larry Gordon.

Jim Lowe is music critic and arts editor of The Times Argus and Rutland Herald, and can be reached at jim.lowe@rutlandherald.com or jim.lowe@timesargus.com.

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