John Teman Dennison
John Dennison, conductor and singer, has enjoyed a varied and multi-faceted career for over forty years in music education and as a professional orchestra conductor. During that career, he was able to study with and be affirmed by noted conductors of his time.
Dennison was born in Brooklyn, New York, the sixth of seven children of Timothy and Modrey Dennison. The family relocated to Los Angeles when he was five. Although music was an important activity in the home and all of the children were musical, John did not have any formal training until he was in the sixth grade, when he learned to play the trumpet. This start in music ended the following year, however, when he transferred to a school without a music program.
He had a natural talent for singing and an innate ability to read music, which led to his involvement in choral music and being a sought-after tenor. He attended Oakwood Academy in Alabama, where he became the assistant director of the OA choir at age sixteen. He then returned to the West Coast, graduated from Lynwood Academy, and formed a choral ensemble, the Metropoliers.
After a year, he attended Oakwood College, now University, for three years. During that time, he directed the choir at Oakwood Academy during his freshman year, and formed a male chorus at the college in his sophomore year. During that year he also filled in for the director of the Aeolians when she took a maternity leave. In his junior year he formed a prize-winning male quartet.
The following year, John transferred to Pacific Union College, where his natural conducting talent deeply impressed Harold Lickey, the conducting teacher. Even though he intended to marry Vivian Roberson that summer and return to PUC in the fall, he returned to the Los Angeles area at the request of his father to assist in a music project. He enrolled at Pepperdine University for a year and was planning on attending a second year when his wife, Vivian, who had been financially supporting his studies, became ill and was not able to continue working. John had to abandon his music studies for six years and worked as a clerk-typist for the state of California.
At the end of that time, Dennison returned to school at California State University as a voice major and within three years completed both a B.A. and an M.A. in music in 1970 and 1972, respectively. Following completion of his master's degree, he was hired by Lynwood Academy to direct its band and choir, a position he held for nine years.
While teaching at Lynwood, in the summer of 1975 he began attending the International Institute of Orchestral Conducting held at Loma Linda University. For the next eight summers he continued at the institute, where he studied with Herbert Blomstedt as one of twelve chosen to study personally in master classes with him. Blomstedt would later observe:
John T. Dennison is quite a remarkable person. . . .His musical talent is obvious; his technical skills considerable; and his dedication absolutely great. What he aims at he will attain through hard work, unfailing belief, and sweet manners.
In 1981 he was invited to chair the music department at Oakwood College, with the stipulation that he complete a doctorate under sponsorship by the college. He accepted and two years later, having completed all course work for the degree at the University of Southern California, assumed the leadership of the music program at OC and directorship of its Vocal Ensemble and Touring Choir.
While at USC, he studied orchestral conducting with Dan Lewis, choral conducting with Rodney Eichenberger, and was a soloist in the Concert Choir. He graduated in 1985 with a D.M.A. in church music. In 1986 he was chosen through auditioning to participate in an orchestral conducting workshop under Harold Faberman at the University of West Virginia.
Also in 1986, Dennison directed a critically acclaimed performance of Rossini's Stabat Mater with choir, orchestra, and soloists from OC, as well as spirituals, at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. A reviewer in the Washington Post praised the richness and power of the choral sound as well as the moments of hushed beauty and intensity, attributing these attributes to the quality of training and musical discipline the students had received.
In 1987 the Dennisons returned to California, where he taught in the Los Angeles Unified School district for two years and then accepted a music position at El Camino Community College in 1990, where he taught for the next six years. At that time he returned to teach in the Los Angeles Unified school system, which was nearer his home. In 1993, he became director of the Southeast Symphony Orchestra, a position he held until 2003.
In 2003, he was invited to join the music faculty at Walla Walla University. For the next six years he was the Director of Choral Activities and, beginning in 2005, was asked to conduct its orchestra as well.
At a choral workshop Dennison conducted in Penang, Malaysia, in 2006, he led a mass choir in a benefit performance for Mount Miriam Hospital Cancer Center. The response to that visit and the concert led to an invitation to return the following year to conduct a performance of the Messiah in that city's primary concert hall.
In June 2009, the Dennisons retired to California, where they now live near their three children.
Sources: Personal Data Sheet, 2003; Interview and conversations, 27 September and 12 October 2006; Email, 11 April 2012; The Aeolians, Directors Recall Precious Memories, Roy E. Malcolm, editor, "Call Central Casting," John Dennison, 1999, 91-101; personal knowledge.