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Mercyhurst choir director finds harmony in ‘retirement’

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Thomas Brooks, center, Nathan Hess, at piano

Never in his wildest dreams did Thomas Brooks imagine that after founding the Mercyhurst College Choir and Chamber Singers in 1971 his career would scale to worldwide prominence.

And never, had you told him he’d end up back at Mercyhurst 46 years later, would he have believed it possible.

Yet, that’s his story. He’s returning to Mercyhurst for an encore, this time as director of University Choirs with the D’Angelo Department of Music. Earlier this summer he was also named choir director for the Erie Philharmonic Chorus.

Two years ago, he retired to Erie with his wife, soprano Susan Brooks. The original plan was to manage her family’s 150-acre farm in Summit-McKean townships. Brooks isn’t so much a farmer as he is a builder. He particularly enjoys building the infrastructure of his land and is as much at home atop his tractor as he is on the conducting platform.

Just to make sure he didn’t lose touch with his profession, the plan also called for him to maintain existing positions as the director of the Boston area chamber choir, Lyricora, and co-director of the Salzburg Institute in Austria.

But plans don’t always materialize as you envision. Not long after he returned to Erie, a friend asked Brooks if he’d consider serving on the Board of Governors of the Erie Philharmonic. He agreed. Then, the Phil’s chorus needed a new director and he was asked to audition. He got the part. Soon after Nathan Hess, assistant professor of music at Mercyhurst, asked Brooks if he’d consider taking over the university’s choirs. He said, “of course.”

And, for Brooks, that’s retirement at 70!

What’s it like being back at Mercyhurst after more than four decades away?

“I really like the quality of a student who comes to a school like Mercyhurst; a student who is interested in living an ethical life,” he said. “I like the collegiality you feel here, not to mention the strong sense of community. It’s good to be back.”

What would he like to accomplish at Mercyhurst?

The builder in him is eager to get started. “I’d like to build a first-class university choir that people are eager to come and see perform,” he said. “I want to make it a real attraction.”

Of that, his dean, Dr. Leanne Roberts, has little doubt. Roberts, who oversees the Hafenmaier College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, says, “Reading about Mr. Brooks’ successful career and talking with him during the interview process did not adequately prepare me for the caliber of his work. While watching him work with our choir last week, I felt like someone had given us a rare and unexpected gift.”

C. Thomas Brooks Biography

Brooks has performed in some of the world’s most revered venues, among them New York City’s Carnegie Hall, Victoria Hall in Geneva, the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and the Salzburg Cathedral in Salzburg, Austria.

But it all began at Mercyhurst, where he came after completing graduate studies at the New England Conservatory. Besides conducting Mercyhurst’s choir in the early 70s, he also conducted the Symphonic Singers of Erie. In 1974 he moved to the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Connecticut, where he conducted the Hartt Chorale, the Collegiate Singers, the Hartt Touring Opera Theatre and the University Civic Chorus and Chamber Choir. While in Hartford, Brooks also conducted the Arts in Unison Bel Canto Opera Company, Connecticut Light Opera on the Sound, the America’s Youth in Concert Program to Europe, and was co-founder and musical director of the New Lyric Theatre.

In 1984 he joined the faculty of Texas Tech University as conductor of the Collegiate Singers and Musical Theatre, and also served as associate conductor of the University Concert Choir and Chamber Singers and conductor of the summer musical theatre season. In 1987 he became director of choral activities and chair of vocal studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago, choral conductor at the Chicago Academy for the Arts and guest conductor with the Chicago Chamber Orchestra. In 1988 he joined the faculty of Gordon College as chair of Fine Arts and the chair of the Department of Music, a position he held for 25 years.

Since 1999 he has been director of Music for Traditional Services at the historic Park Street Church in Boston. From 1993 to 2000 he was conductor of the Montage Chamber Singers, and conductor of the chamber choir Cantillare from 2003-2005.  Since 2008 he has been conductor of the Boston area chamber choir, Lyricora.  In that year he also became co-founder/co-director of the Salzburg Institute with its international symposia, lecture series and summer undergraduate study program in Vienna and Salzburg, Austria.  

His educational video series, Singing, Acting, Surviving, coauthored with stage director Ronald Luchsinger, was released by TRL Enterprises in conjunction with Schaffner Music Publishers, which also publishes the Thomas Brooks Choral Series. He is currently coauthoring a new text on training the high school singer with his wife.