John R. Donaldson, 1925-2021: A scientist who sings, or a singer who does science? He hit the sweet spot.
John R. Donaldson, one of the most dedicated musicians I knew, had an incredible balance in his life: He made the right and left sides of his brain sing together.
Dr. Donaldson, who died Sunday at age 95 after a brief illness, was a physicist with a doctorate from Yale, so he had the scientist-analytical-left-brain thing going on. And he was an ardent chorister, a man for whom song became a higher calling, which meant that the artistic-right-dominant side was robustly represented in that busy head of his. Add to that a penchant for public service (he was a former member of the Fresno County Board of Supervisors) and a bevy of other fascinating biographical details (champion discus thrower and All-American volleyball player, backpacker, world traveler), and you add up an existence on this earth lived to the fullest.
Nancy Price, writing in GV Wire, has an illuminating remembrance of John, including recollections from close friends and from Anna Hamre, music director of the Fresno Master Chorale, the chorus he helped to found and in which he sang for 65 years.
For me, one of the most compelling things about John, besides his booming voice, was the simple fact that he was always there. He was a fixture in the bass section. For a number of years when I sang and toured with the chorus to China, France and Israel, he brought his steady professorial presence to whatever the situation, whether a difficult rehearsal or getting lost in the Old City in Jerusalem. He had an inherent talent for bridging generations by relating to people 60 years younger with a genial charm.
And later, when I became just an audience member for the chorus, I made it a point to always pick John out of the massive group of black-clad singers on stage. He was a landmark, a familiar sight. In later years, he sat down when he sang. Wherever I’d find him, it felt like I was checking in.
In 2006, for a story I wrote about the chorus’s tour to Carnegie Hall in New York City — I got to cover it as a Bee reporter — I caught up with John to ask him what he thought.
“I decided I’d never even seen Carnegie Hall,” Donaldson says. “I’m 80 years old, and I figure I’d better get there.” (Little did he know that he’d still have a 15-year window.)
In 2016, in a Bee story celebrating the 60th anniversary of the chorus, I wrote:
At age 30, back in 1956, John Donaldson was there for the very first rehearsal of the newly founded Fresno Community Chorus.
At age 60, he celebrated his birthday in 1986 by performing Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in B minor with the chorus. (“It was the best birthday I ever had,” he says.)
At age 90, he will sing the world premiere of a piece commissioned for the 60th anniversary of the chorus.
Thirty. Sixty. Ninety. I remember hoping that the scientist in John would appreciate the mathematical elegance.
John was a supporter of the arts. He was a lover of the Fresno Philharmonic. When a brouhaha unfolded over the firing of conductor Raymond Harvey, he stepped up as president of SOS (Save Our Symphony), which agitated for Harvey’s reinstatement. When that didn’t happen, he closed ranks and continued to support the musicians.
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He was also a faithful supporter of The Munro Review, for which I’ll always be grateful. He’d offer comments and the occasional email about my classical music coverage. (And when I’d make an error, he’d gently correct me.) The last email he sent, in 2019, was before the lockdown. He was asking about why the Metropolitan Opera’s “Live in HD” version of “Romeo and Juliet” didn’t play in Fresno.
He was always on top of things.
The highlight of the 60th anniversary concert that I wrote about in 2016 was a commissioned work. Chorus member Gladys Ruiz wrote the text. Years later, as I read through the lyrics again in preparation for writing this post, I thought of John:
Take up the verse, you who would stumble;
join the refrain, you who would speak. Whisper
hope, life, and compassion: drink in
joy, the eternal, and sing.
Like streams we gather, one river
song: we find home. Valley chorus,
fill the air with joyful song.
I wrote: Think of singers as a stream of voices that flows forever through the years, swirling and sloshing together into a powerhouse of song.
To John Donaldson: Your voice was — and is — part of that mighty river. Long may it flow.