Rochester is a city rich in choirs and many singers mourn the death of one of its most influential leaders, Roger Wilhelm, who died on Sunday October 3 at the age of 84.
Wilhelm was Director of the Sanctuary Choir at Asbury First United Methodist Church for almost 30 years, and Music Director of Madrigalia from 1989 to 2006. He was also conductor for the Opera Theater of Rochester and the Opera Under the Stars, but it was in his role as Music Director of the large community choir Rochester Oratorio Society that Wilhelm had the greatest impact.
In 1986, when he became the second director in the history of ROS of this great community choir, he became a kind of statesman in the choral world. He commissioned new music from composers such as Jeff Tyzik. He helped galvanize local vocal groups into a strong coalition, the Greater Rochester Choral Consortium.
A friend of composers and other directors, Wilhelm had a special gift for encouraging and uplifting those around him. His easy going manners, organizational skills and attention to detail kept things going.
ROS Artistic Director Eric Townell said the conductor’s legacy lives on not only in the works he commissioned, but also in a grant program he created at the Greater Rochester Choral Consortium. which provides seed funding for choirs trying to do interesting and new things they wouldn’t do. otherwise undertake.
Wilhelm, originally from Buffalo, was educated at Northwestern University, University of California at Berkeley, and Stanford University, where he received his doctorate in music. He has taught at Kendall College, the University of North Dakota and the University of Rochester and the Eastman School of Music. Wilhelm also published several editions of early 17th century choral music and edited the first interpretive edition of Mozart’s “Regina Coeli”, K108.
He also championed new works, commissioning a major oratorio from composer Cary Ratcliff, “The Ode to Common Things”, which he conducted when it premiered in 1996. In 2008, the ROS – under the direction of successor to Wilhelm, Eric Townell – sang parts of the oratorio at a choral festival in Beijing, China. A commercial recording of the work was subsequently nominated for a Grammy Award.
During his long career, Wilhelm also transformed the small Madrigalia ensemble, turning a relatively loose group of talented singers into a nationally renowned chamber choir through his early recordings. Tenor Dan McInerney, who has performed under Wilhelm’s direction in several groups, said the conductor was very regulated and analytical in his approach to music.
“But he knew his singers,” McInerney said. “He knew everyone by name. He would strike up a conversation with a hundred and fifty people. It’s a little hard to know everyone, but he knew everyone.
In 1996, Wilhelm was named “Musician of the Year” by the Rochester Alumni Chapter of Mu Phi Epsilon, an international professional music fraternity. In 2008, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Arts & Cultural Council for Greater Rochester.
Roger Wilhelm is survived by his wife Beth, their family and friends, as well as countless singers whose lives have been enriched by his passion for choral music.