Phila. Singers Founder Michael Korn Dies At 44

Posted: August 30, 1991

Michael Korn, 44, the founder and director of the Philadelphia Singers and a major force in the musical life of this city, died yesterday of complications from AIDS.

He had battled the disease for three years. But with remarkable persistence, he continued to steer his organization, even during his final week. He died about 2:30 p.m. yesterday at Pennsylvania Hospital, while awaiting radiation treatment. He had been admitted Monday.

Mr. Korn, known for his forthright and feisty nature, kept his spirit until the end - singing Happy Birthday over the phone to Philadelphia Singers' publicist Roy Wilbur yesterday, only hours before he died. "And don't think you're going to get it again," he said after the first stanza.

Wilbur is one of several friends who maintained a round-the-clock vigil with the conductor during his final weeks. Among the others are Alan Harler, director of the Mendelssohn Club, and Janice Bryson, the Singers' development director.

A few weeks ago, Mr. Korn made preliminary arrangements for his funeral and for a musical memorial. He will be buried in Harrisburg, near his deceased father, but the funeral will be at First United Methodist Church in Germantown, where he began his career as the church's music director and remained a congregant after he left that post. The funeral date was not set as of yesterday.

Mr. Korn had wanted a musical memorial to follow his funeral by about a month, and friends and choruses from Philadelphia and elsewhere are expected to perform. The memorial is likely to be in Philadelphia.

Despite progressive debilitation and increasing difficulty breathing, the musician managed to maintain a vigorous pace. He kept conducting until this summer, even though he was too weak to lead while standing up; he would conduct from a seat. And he managed to found and preside over the March debut of a 130-member chorus, the Philadelphia Singers Chorale, an extension of the Singers that performs with symphony orchestras.

He was very proud that he'd been able to rouse himself, despite the illness, to create the chorale. "A last shot," Mr. Korn called it.

"There's a great deal of fulfillment and joy in that; that is not the cause for sadness."

He frequently worked with the Concerto Soloists Chamber Orchestra, which he last led at the Academy of Music on March 29 when, with Mozart's Requiem, Mr. Korn introduced the Singers' Chorale. He said a few days ago that, of all his performances, "it's one I hope will be remembered."

From bed in his Juniper Street home in Center City two weeks ago, Mr. Korn spelled out the details of the Singers' next two seasons, which included guest appearances by such giants of choral music as Margaret Hillis, founder of the Chicago Symphony Chorus, and Robert Shaw, conductor emeritus of the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus. Both were Mr. Korn's early mentors.

Besides his nationally regarded accomplishments with the Singers, Mr. Korn had for decades been a key player with a number of the city's respected music institutions. These included the Bach Festival of Philadelphia, which he once ran and for which the Singers performed nearly all of Bach's masterworks and 200 cantatas.

He also had a lifetime contract as choirmaster of the Opera Company of Philadelphia, where he had conducted some productions.

Yesterday, Hillis spoke for many in the choral world: "Internationally, he has had a very, very strong impact" in raising standards for choral music. Said Robert Page, director of Pittsburgh's Mendelssohn Choir: "It's a huge loss for Philadelphia - and for all of us in the choral field."

Mr. Korn's gift as an organ virtuoso brought him to Philadelphia. He was 19 and followed his teacher, the eminent pedagogue Alexander McCurdy, from Westminster Choir College in Princeton, where Mr. Korn had been a scholarship student, to the Curtis Institute. Here, with McCurdy's blessing, he also took up conducting.

The same year, 1966, he became organist and director of the First United Methodist Church.

According to the Rev. Ted Loder, the church's longtime minister, "Mike stepped into some pretty big shoes" because the previous director was a prominent church musician. "I don't think anybody thought too much about how young he was. He had enormous talent and confidence; there was no self- doubt."

While in that job, Mr. Korn founded the Germantown Music Society. A few years later it went broke, but it served as a model for the Philadelphia Singers, the city's only all-professional chorus, which he would start four years later, in 1971.

Mr. Korn was the founding president and, most recently, development director of what is now called Chorus America, a national service organization that raises money and provides services to professional and amateur choruses across the country.

In June, Mr. Korn attended the Chorus America convention in Vancouver. ''And he did not look good, but I tell you he was still the big rabble- rouser," Page said. "He got people to open up their pocketbooks. When he has a mission, he's unstoppable."

Mr. Korn was born and raised in Harrisburg. His mother, Mary, who now lives in West Palm Beach, Fla., remembers that he "started picking out melodies on a toy piano when I was 3 1/2," Mr. Korn said recently. He started piano lessons seriously at 6.

There were no musicians in his family; an aunt's wedding inadvertently led to organ lessons. During the ceremony, "I sneaked around to this organ, which for me looked like a spaceship," Mr. Korn said. Fascinated, he began organ lessons at age 10 1/2. "Three months later, I had my first church job," said Mr. Korn, who kept it until he left Harrisburg at 18.

A recital he gave in New York's St. Thomas Church in October 1965 landed him an invitation to appear with Leonard Bernstein on one of the conductor's televised Young People's Concerts. Bernstein's secretary liked the recital and called to ask if Mr. Korn knew the Poulenc concerto.

He did not, but he said he did. "I ran up to Patelson's Music Store, got the music, and then called my best friend, Michael Stairs, who is a fabulous score-reader," he said. The two worked on the piece together.

"But for us, the real fun was taking the music back to the dorm (at Westminster Choir College), where we called a party and had our friends stomp all over it," said Mr. Korn. He didn't want the score to look as though he had just bought it.

When the program was filmed, there was no room for the organ concerto. Bernstein called Mr. Korn to apologize that his segment had been dropped. The renowned conductor made it up to him the following year with a performance of a Bach fugue on a Young People's Concert. It aired in 1967, making Mr. Korn the first organist to appear on the celebrated show.

Until recently, Mr. Korn had maintained a public silence about his illness, saying that he was "afraid I'd lose my audiences. But I realize now that the opposite was true: I've never known such overwhelming love and support from colleagues and friends."

Mr. Korn has willed his scores, his collection of music books and his piano to the Curtis Institute. His will also provides for an endowed conducting chair for the Philadelphia Singers.

In addition to his mother, Mr. Korn is survived by his stepfather, Charles Noll, of West Palm Beach.

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