Norman O. Scribner, founder and artistic director of the Choral Arts Society of Washington, one of the region’s preeminent symphonic choirs, died March 22 at his home in the District. He was 79.
The cause was a heart attack, said a son, Matthew Scribner.
The late Washington Post music critic Paul Hume once called Mr. Scribner “one of Washington’s finest musicians and one of the most gifted choral conductors in the country.”
A skilled pianist, organist and composer, he spent nearly five decades at the helm of the Choral Arts Society. There, he coached and conducted thousands of singers in concerts at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and other venues in the United States and abroad.
The choral society formed in 1963 at the urging of Howard Mitchell, then director of National Symphony Orchestra. Impressed by Mr. Scribner’s “ability and intensity” after watching him perform as a church choirmaster and NSO staff keyboardist, Mitchell asked him to assemble a community chorus for the orchestra’s holiday performance of Handel’s oratorio “Messiah.”
To recruit volunteer singers, Mr. Scribner placed a help-wanted ad in a local newspaper. “The response was overwhelming,” he later wrote, “with nearly 500 eager choristers auditioning, enabling me to select a first-class chorus of approximately 120 voices. It was the excitement generated by that experience that caused the spontaneous desire to remain intact as a group.”
The performance was well-received, and the choir reassembled for two subsequent “Messiah” concerts. The choral society was established as an independent choral organization in 1965 and formally incorporated in 1966.
Two years later, the chorale performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial as part of the funeral procession of then-Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York, who had been assassinated while running for president.
“He gets us to a point where we are razor sharp, not in just knowing the notes, but knowing the music and what the composer is trying to express,” chorale member Glen Howard once told the Washington Times about Mr. Scribner. “He’s like most great conductors: They make you give more than you think you have.”
In 1969, a year after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sparked riots in Washington, Mr. Scribner coordinated and conducted a tribute concert to King at the Shiloh Baptist Church in the District.
“He felt very strongly that he could and would bring the community together through song and music,” Debra Kraft, the executive director of the Choral Arts Society of Washington, said this week. “He believed in the beauty of music and its power to heal.” The King tribute concert is now an annual event hosted by the Kennedy Center and features local performance groups and ensembles.
During his tenure, the Choral Arts Society participated in seven international tours, produced more than 15 commercial recordings, presented 25 world premiere commissions and performed on the Grammy Award-winning classical album “Of Rage and Remembrance” in 1996. They collaborated with conductors such as Leonard Slatkin, Valery Gergiev, Mstislav Rostropovich and Christoph Eschenbach.
Mr. Scribner retired in 2012. “I could go on for more years, but . . . it all comes down to this general sensation that there’s a right time for everything,” he told The Post at the time. “The Bible says there’s a time for this and a time for that, and I just felt instinctively that it was time for a younger person to get in.”
Norman Orville Scribner was born in Washington on Feb. 25, 1936. His mother was a home economics teacher, and his father and grandfather where Methodist clergymen. In his youth, he debated following in his family’s religious footsteps but ultimately “viewed music as a form of ministry,” he told The Post.
He began taking piano lessons at 10 and was awarded a scholarship to study organ at the Peabody music conservatory in Baltimore. He graduated in 1961.
After a brief stint in the Army, he returned to the Washington area and began working at the Washington National Cathedral. He was organist-choirmaster of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in the District from 1960 to 2007.
He composed instrumental, solo vocal and choral works, and was a music faculty member at American University, George Washington University and the Washington National Cathedral’s college of church musicians. He met his future wife Shirley Heiney, a pianist and alto singer, while conducting American University’s chorale in 1960.
He received a Peabody Distinguished Alumni Award in 2006 and the Choral Arts’ humanitarian award in 2012.
Besides his wife of 48 years, of Washington, survivors include four children, David Scribner of Takoma Park, Md., Jonathan Scribner of Kensington, Md., Matthew Scribner of Washington and Rachel Lunsford of Silver Spring, Md.; a sister; and eight grandchildren.
At his final curtain call at the Kennedy Center, Mr. Scribner kept the spotlight on the music, not his retirement.
“Scribner is one of music’s most devout acolytes: He takes it exactly as it is. He venerates it but does not pontificate; his whole manner is homespun. . . . There’s no great emoting, no excess, no attempt to present himself as a conductor,” Post music critic Anne Midgette wrote in her review. “Even in this, his swan song, [he] conducted as if he wanted to stand aside and give the music center stage.”