Choir director places coda on 44-year music career

Westminster congregation bids farewell to teacher with services, reception

May 31, 1999|By Sheridan Lyons | Sheridan Lyons,SUN STAFF

Westminster United Methodist Church honored music and choir director Richard R. Blanchard yesterday for his service to the church -- and a 44-year career in sacred music.

Although much of his work was in teaching and school administration, "his love has been music," said the Rev. David A. Highfield, a friend and pastor of the Westminster church at 162 E. Main St., where Blanchard's career was celebrated at both Sunday services and a reception.

Blanchard became music director at the church in September 1995. He and Highfield had worked together before at Hunt's Memorial United Methodist Church in Riderwood.

Blanchard has also served as interim director of the Western Maryland College Choir for the past year. The choir performed at the college's commencement May 22.

"It's been wonderful. It really has been a wonderful time," Blanchard said last week. But at age 66, "I need to go smell the roses and do other things."

After "two services every Sunday for 44 years," he said, he's ready for weekends with his grandchildren and relaxing at the home his family bought on Fenwick Island.

A native of Reading, Mass., Blanchard sang in high school in the Old South Methodist Church choir. He didn't begin working in music until after he enlisted in the Air Force and was sent to Japan, where he served for five years. It was in Japan in 1955 that he first directed a choir.

He later directed the choir at Bolling Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., with the Air Force Band and the Singing Sergeants.

In 1960, he went to Andrews Air Force Base -- and a life in Maryland. While overseas, he had taken extension courses through the University of Maryland University College, so it seemed natural to head to College Park to continue his education.

"I worked my way through college with the GI Bill and directing church choirs," he said. He later attended Boston University and Marquette University in Michigan, where he played ice hockey for a professional minor-league team.

"I played hockey and sang. I would let out some glorious sounds," he said, laughing at the memory.

A tenor, he had auditioned unsuccessfully for the Metropolitan Opera in 1963 and had sung professionally with choral groups.

"But I was never a soloist -- I was never really good enough," he said.

Blanchard earned a bachelor's degree in music and a master's in music performance and conducting, then another degree in school administration. He worked for area church choirs in Rockville, Camp Springs, Oxon Hill, Bladensburg and College Park.

In 1965, he became a high school music teacher. During several years at Bladensburg High School, he led a madrigal group that sang for Richard Nixon's presidential inauguration, as well as in Westminster Abbey in London, in Venice, Munich, Paris and Sarajevo -- the first non-Communist group to sing in Yugoslavia during the Cold War.

"It was very frightening," he said of that 1972 tour. "The hall was as big as the Convention Center in Baltimore -- and it was packed."

President Tito invited the 25 teens and their adult chaperones for a private post-midnight performance at his villa.

Blanchard said he taught more than 200 students a year in vocal music, and his concert and madrigal groups were highly competitive. "I kept a lot of kids in school, gave them a challenge," he said.

In 1974, Blanchard moved into administration for Prince George's County public schools. It was a chance to earn more money, and he turned down several offers from colleges because he had young children and wanted to stay in the area. He retired in 1991, when he moved to the Westminster area and became choir director at the Riderwood church. Four years later, he was hired for the Westminster music director's job.

"I've had a wonderful time at the Methodist church here," Blanchard said. The 60-member choir made three recordings to raise money for the music program, after parishioners voted for their favorite traditional and contemporary songs.

"He's given a lot to the church -- and I don't mean just this one," said Highfield. "I appreciate his personal spirituality that encourages singers to worship, putting God before themselves."

"He builds choirs -- that's been his history. He builds choirs like a family. They care very much for each other."

Pub Date: 5/31/99

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.