Diane Loomer did not believe music was just notes that enter through the ears. She believed that something powerful plants itself in the soul of the listener, the singer and the conductor.
When she realized in middle age that she had a magic touch for giving voice to that ineffable “something,” she spent the rest of her life joyfully and energetically nourishing it through choral music. She was the founder and artistic director of Chor Leoni Men’s Choir and co-founder of Elektra Women’s Choir, now widely considered among the best choirs in the world.
Loomer died in Vancouver on Dec. 10 at the age of 72.
The words that best describe both her musical and personal lives are generosity, kindness and fun. Choir members say she drew out the best in everyone and just “loved” the music out of them.
Diane Mary Loomer (née Kolander) was born in St. Paul, Minn., on April 23, 1940, to an American-born Norwegian father and German mother. Neither her father – a mail clerk on the railroad – nor and her mother completed high school, but both worked hard to put her and her older brother David through college.
In this Midwest state of predominantly Scandinavian stock, music and singing is as natural a reflex as breathing. Minnesotans are inheritors of some of the best choral music in the world and the young Diane was never far from it.
It was in the chapel loft of Gustavus Adolphus College, a small Lutheran-affiliated Swedish-rooted liberal arts school, where the vivacious brunette caught the eye of football-playing, glee club and chapel choir freshman Richard Loomer. The first day he spotted her, he stared at her from his pew. A week later he threw a snowball (and missed). Five years later, in 1963, they married.
She graduated with a BA in1962. She taught high school math and English for three years in Denver (where she sometimes moonlighted in a piano bar by night), Philadelphia and in her hometown, White Bear Lake, just north of St. Paul. She supported Richard through medical school, his internships and residencies.
He was recruited into the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War and in 1966 had the good fortune to be stationed in Frankfurt, Germany. From a base there, they travelled all over Europe.
They returned to the United States in 1970 with a baby son, Daniel. Richard let his buzz cut grow in, Diane turned blond, and they lived in Portland, Ore., for a year, where she worked at Mount Hood as a ski instructor while Richard did an internship. In 1971 they moved to Vancouver so Richard could do his residency in orthopedic surgery at the University of British Columbia.
When Richard completed his training, their son Daniel was six. They decided it was her turn. She enrolled at Douglas College to start a Bachelor of Music degree with plan to teach high school again. Professor Richard Kitson, then director of the school’s fine arts program, remembers her as a student with a brilliant mind for music theory and history.
He also thought that her charismatic, empathetic personality would make her a great choral director. After she completed her BA at UBC in 1982 at the age of 42, Kitson asked her to conduct the newly formed Douglas College Community Choir.
She had only one conducting course under her belt, but with her natural ability to use her body, hands and eyes to connect with a large group of people, she excelled. She led the choir until 1996. (It was renamed Amabilis Singers in 1989.)
She continued to seek out the best conductors in the world to apprentice with, including Jon Washburn. She subsequently founded the Douglas College Children’s Choir and became assistant director of the Vancouver Bach Choir.
In 1987, she and Morna Edmundson, a former UBC classmate and singer in the Vancouver Chamber Choir, co-founded Elektra Women’s Choir. They quickly became internationally recognized for their adventurous programming, and for commissioning new works (more than 60 to date) composed or arranged specifically for women. The choir has created an important Canadian and international resource of more than 400 works for treble voices. Loomer became conductor emerita in 2009.
In 1992, she founded Chor Leoni Men’s Choir. Modelled after the Swedish men’s choir Orphei Drangar, the choir quickly became one of Canada’s leading male choirs, singing a diverse mix of 19th and 20th century classical works, as well as spirituals, pop and jazz. Loomer described the male voice choir – which her second bass husband sings in – as “brilliantly heroic and achingly tender.” Erick Lichte is the new director.
For Chor Leoni and Elektra, Loomer composed and arranged numerous spirituals and folksongs. In 1991, she and her husband formed the publishing company Cypress Choral Music (now owned by Larry Nickel). She made it part of her mission to put Canadian composers and choral arrangements of folksongs on the map, and did so to huge success.
In 2007, she founded EnChor, an auditioned 40-voice mixed-voice choir for singers over 55, now directed by Carrie Tennant.
Through concerts, tours and recordings, Loomer and her choirs have received many accolades, both nationally and internationally.
In 1999, she was appointed to the Order of Canada. In 2011 she received an honorary doctorate of letters from UBC. She is a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee Medal (2002) and the Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012). She received an honorary doctorate of fine arts from Gustavus Adolphus College in May 2012.
From the age of 30, and while she built five choirs from the ground up, she lived through four potentially fatal health conditions: Hodgkin’s disease; aortic stenosis, for which she received a valve replacement; congestive heart failure; and chronic renal failure.
It was her breathing difficulties that finally caught up with her. The story Loomer’s husband tells is that she made a Faustian deal with the devil: In return for her prodigious talent, he says, she ended up with “all these nasty things.”
When she conducted Chor Leoni’s Remembrance Day concert a month before she died, friend and choir member Rob McAllister said it spoke volumes about the joy she felt in her work. She was very frail and needed help to walk to the podium. But once the choir started to sing, it was like she was lit from within, he said. She straightened up, her eyes brightened and she was focused on every note and nuance of the music. The energy rippled through the choir and audience. When the music and applause ended, she almost fell back into her chair. That was her last performance.
Loomer leaves her husband Richard, son Daniel, granddaughter Ella Sparling and her three choirs.
A celebration of life for Diane Loomer will take place Friday at a free public concert featuring 180 members and alumni of her three main choirs at the Chan Centre in Vancouver.