While Joe Liebling has never, with the exception of the year he was guest conductor, held a formal post with BCCO, he has had a profound influence on our music-making for many years. From the first, Arlene Sagan depended on Joe for guidance and musical advice. Joe was a frequent guest conductor at music retreat weekends and led regular rehearsals from time to time. He was always available to lend his extraordinary store of musical knowledge to the chorus.
During the year he was guest conductor, he led us in performances of Haydn’s Harmoniemesse that led one audience member to remark that “I can’t believe it’s a free concert – it’s so good.” That year’s spring performances of Brahms’ German Requiem, which he shared with Arlene, were a musical high point for us.
Joe’s musical history would take up far more space than we have here, but some of the highlights of a long and brilliant career that began in the High School of Music and Art in New York include playing piano, singing, composing and conducting. He played backup piano for Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie at early hootenannies in New York, and was the piano accompanist for the Pearl Primus Dance Company on tours in England, Israel and the United States. He sang for seven years with Robert Shaw’s Collegiate Chorale. During that time the group performed under Toscanini, Koussevitzky, Stokowski and Bernstein, as well as Robert Shaw.
As a conductor, Joe was the co-founder of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and the founder of the Richmond Symphony Chorus, now the Contra Costa Chorale. His most important position was as music director of the Oakland Symphony Chorus for 22 years.
In Oakland, he was much more than “just” the chorus conductor. Starting with his first season, he annually led the full orchestra and chorus in a program of his choosing. On several occasions, he also conducted the Oakland Symphony Youth Orchestra with the chorus. Under his direction, for many years the Oakland Symphony Chorus was the brightest light in the Paramount Theatre.
Joe’s musical genius was acknowledged by no less a composer than Igor Stravinsky, whose secretary wrote to Joe after performances of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Requiem Canticles with the Oakland Symphony and Chorus that “your chorus is absolutely marvelous, and their performances were the best ever. Mr. Stravinsky has spoken several times of his delight at the sound of both of the pieces.” You can read the entire letter in the attachments to this biography.