Sharing the joy of performing with generations of students, Thomas Somerville epitomized Glee
Growing up on the south side of Chicago, Thomas Somerville studied piano and played string bass for a Chicago dance band. “I had different plans for my life when I was very young,” he told the Glendale News-Press in 1981. “Although I had always played an instrument and had a great interest in music, it took one special concert to bring it all together. I heard a great chorale in concert and the sound was magnificent. I had never realized the scope and effect one could achieve in choral work.”
With a 20-year tenure (1977 to 1997) as director of the Occidental Glee Club, second only to the legendary Howard Swan’s 37 years at the baton, Somerville expanded the organization’s international reach, leading the group on two trips to Europe in the 1980s, and to the former Soviet Union in 1990.
After a long battle with Alzheimer’s, Somerville died Feb. 25 in the memory care unit of his retirement community in Aliso Viejo. He was 85. In a message to her “Glee Club family,” Helen Shafran ’87 wrote that Somerville’s wife of more than 60 years, Virginia, had played for him the Brahms Requiem in the days leading up to his passing, even as he received around-the-clock hospice care.
“Tom was a lovely human being and phenomenal musician,” Desiree LaVertu, Oxy’s director of choral and vocal activities since 2009, wrote following Somerville’s passing. “He was a truly inspired leader who impacted countless young people in his time at Oxy and beyond.”
Somerville received his B.A. and B.M. degrees at the University of Dubuque and completed his master’s and doctoral studies in music at USC. He also taught at USC from 1972 to 1977, where he directed the Concert Choir, University Chorus, and Trojan Chorale, and spent summers as assistant conductor and chorus manager for Robert Shaw’s choral workshops.
In 1974, he moved to Glendale, where he became director of music at Glendale First Presbyterian Church. Three years later, he joined the Occidental faculty as professor of music, succeeding Henry Gibbons as Glee Club director.
In an era that saw fewer students auditioning for glee clubs, Somerville was able to assemble outstanding groups of men and women to perform under his skilled direction. As a Los Angeles Times critic observed, “The eyes of the singers never leave the conductor, and he leads them to shimmering towers of sound.”
Frequent performances of classical masterworks, especially from the Baroque, defined the Somerville years. But there were many highlights: In 1982, composer Elinor Remick Warren’s Good Morning, America! (commissioned by Occidental for the 1976 Bicentennial) was sung with the Caltech-Occidental Symphony in Herrick Chapel. In the early 1980s, the Glee Club recorded a concert for the KCET TV series On Campus.
Prior to a pair of concert tours in 1981—a spring tour of Northern and Central California and a summer trip to Hawai‘i—Somerville reflected on the “joy” of performing. “It is challenging to constantly seek new ways of keeping music fresh for the singers so that we can keep the music fresh for the audience.
“In some ways, the Glee Club tour can become one of the most stimulating educational experiences of college,” he continued. “After all, tours are the only way most college students can experience what it is like to be a professional performer.”
Somerville served in numerous roles after retiring from the College in 2000. Until 2001, he was director of the Los Angeles Bach Festival and minister of music at First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. Somerville also enjoyed a long association with the Oregon Bach Festival at the University of Oregon in Eugene, serving as director of a master class in choral/orchestral music for many years.
In addition to his wife, Somerville is survived by sons Tod and Ian.