The American choral conductor, Richard Westenburg, won several small piano competitions as a child. As a teenager he became interested in the organ, and in 1954 he earned his Bachelor of Music degree as an organist at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. He completed a master’s in musicology, with a minor in film, at the University of Minnesota in 1956, and in 1959 he went to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, Pierre Cochereau and Jean Langlais. After two years as director of music at the First Unitarian Church in Worcester, Massachusetts, he moved to New York in 1962 and enrolled at the Union Theological Seminary. He joined the faculty at the seminary in 1963 and completed his doctorate in sacred music in 1968.
In 1964 Richard Westenburg was hired as organist and choirmaster at Central Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, and he quickly assembled an early version of the Musica Sacra Choir. During his 10 years at the church, Musica Sacra not only performed as its resident choir but gave public performances as well, and began to win a following. So did Westenburg himself, as Music Director of the Collegiate Chorale from 1973 to 1980 and as a popular lecturer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1979 to 1982.
When he left Central Presbyterian Church to become conductor in residence at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in 1974, he brought Musica Sacra with him. But the choir was having financial troubles and canceled its public concerts in 1975. Its Messiah performance that year became a symbol of the ensemble’s determination: the concert was held in Westenburg’s living room, with the choristers and listeners partaking of a potluck dinner before the performance.
Richard Westenburg was a lively, inspiring director who kept close tabs on changing musicological notions about the performance of Baroque works but balanced those prescriptions with his own strongly etched sense of style, usually with stimulating results. His signature work was George Frideric Handel’s Messiah, in which he led Musica Sacra at Carnegie Hall most years at Christmastime. In the late 1970’s Westenburg’s Messiah performances were widely considered the best in New York. His choir was a trim ensemble of between 30 and 35 singers, and his brisk readings offered a striking contrast to the mammoth Victorian Messiah performances that had become commonplace. In a review in The New York Times in 1977, Allen Hughes wrote that Westenburg’s interpretation “probably comes about as close as possible to an ideal representation of the work in terms of current musicological information and present-day demands of musical performance in general.” Westenburg’s 1981 recording of Messiah with Musica Sacra, on RCA Red Seal, was highly regarded in its time and remains a favorite.
When recordings and live performances by ensembles using period instruments became more plentiful, and the Musica Sacra Messiah came to seem dated, Richard Westenburg was not complacent. Although he did not make the move to period instruments, he hired orchestra players conversant with the sound and style that early-music specialist bands produced. And from the 1990’s on he seemed intent on reconciling several competing schools of thought about Messiah, seeking to retain the sharp focus of his reduced choral sound while at the same time embracing the velvety tone, expansiveness and grandeur of more traditional, large-scale performances. Beyond Messiah, he commanded a vast repertory that stretched from the works of Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th-century abbess and composer, to contemporary scores by Ligeti, Messiaen, David Diamond and Meredith Monk. Over the years Musica Sacra gave memorable performances of the Monteverdi Vespers, Haydn’s Creation, Verdi’s Requiem, Franz Liszt’s Christus, Fauré’s Requiem and J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244) and Mass in B minor (BWV 232).
In 1979 Richard Westenburg started and directed a Bach festival at Lincoln Center - it was called Basically Bach, a play on the alliterative name of the center’s successful Mostly Mozart festival - which ran for a decade. Although his performances with Musica Sacra were at its core, the festival also offered chamber music, instrumental recitals and choral concerts led by other conductors.
Richard Westenburg assembled a board, and within five years the choir was thriving. When another financial crisis hit in 1994, his choristers, who are paid for their work, waived their fees for a few concerts, which were offered as benefits for the organization. In 1990 Westenburg became music director at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, and conducted the church’s own choir of paid professionals and church members. again bringing Musica Sacra with him to perform at the church sometimes.
In addition to conducting, Richard Westenburg taught choral music and conducting at the Mannes College of Music from 1971 to 1977, and led the choral department at the Juilliard School from 1977 to 1989. He was also a visiting professor at Rutgers University from 1986 to 1992.
Richard Westenburg’s two marriages ended in divorce. He died of colon cancer on February 20, 2008 at a hospital in Norwalk, Connecticut. He was 75 and lived in Redding, Connecticut. He was survived by his sons Eric, of Reno, Nevada, and Mario, of Redding; his daughters, Kirsten Westenburg Barnhorst of Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, and Nadia Westenburg of Redding; and six grandchildren.