Friends and family gathered last week to celebrate the life of David Barnett, whose two great loves were music and the outdoors.
The former leader of the Billings Symphony Chorale died of a sudden heart attack on Thanksgiving, Nov. 26.
His friend and former colleague, Uri Barnea, the first full-time music director and conductor of the Billings Symphony, remembered Barnett as a skilled director who paid meticulous attention to enunciation, intonation and “shaping the phrase.”
“I also enjoyed him very much as a human being,” Barnea, who led the orchestra from 1984 to 2004, said. “He was a good friend and he had a very good temperament.”
Barnea took the lead role when the symphony and chorale joined together for performances, but one year he turned the baton over to Barnett in a performance of Handel’s Messiah.
Barnett’s wife of 49 years, Carolyn Barnett, said that experience “was unbelievably exciting for him. He always said that was the highlight of his career.”
Barnett was born in 1945 in Altoona, Penn., and his family moved to Leesburg, Fla., when he was 10. He met Carolyn, a native of Eustis, Fla., when they were both music students at Lake Sumter Junior College.
Carolyn said her husband played upright bass in a folk trio, the Fiesmen, in high school through his sophomore year of college. He and the other two musicians reunited many years later to record a few songs in St. Louis, then performed at their 50th high school reunion in 2013.
He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music education from Florida State University, and he served in the Navy during the Vietnam War. He later taught high school music for four years in Fort Meyers, Fla., and earned another title—a doctor of music arts in choral conducting, from the University of Miami.
He spent 13 years teaching at North Georgia College, an hour north of Atlanta, and he was a chorus member and soloist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. During that time he directed the Gwinnett Chorale Guild, including memorable performances at Carnegie Hall and St. Petersburg, Russia.
Over the years, David and Carolyn would load up their canvas tent and go camping in the West, Northwest and Southwest, which was how they first saw Montana.
“We always said that if we got the chance (to move out West), we’d jump at it,” Carolyn said. That chance came in 1996, when David was offered a teaching job at Eastern Montana College, now MSU Billings. Before he started teaching, Carolyn said, he auditioned for and get the job of leading the symphony chorale. Barnea said Barnett “had a great expertise in voice and voice development,” and it was always a joy to collaborate with him.
Barnett had done some barbershop singing in Georgia, but he became even more involved in Billings when he joined the Big Sky Barbershop Chorus, led by his friend, the late Paul Halpin. The other three members of a barbershop quartet Barnett sang with performed at the memorial gathering for Barnett on Dec. 5.
In addition to music, Barnett loved hunting and fishing.
“I loved being out with him hunting,” Carolyn said. “For a lot of years, I was just the spotter and the leg holder for the gutting.” But this year, she finally got a license of her own and shot her first deer just weeks before David died.
“But our favorite thing to do was fish. He loved to fish,” Carolyn said. Their usual destination was the Tongue River Reservoir, but in the summer of 2014 he fulfilled a lifelong wish and made a fishing trip to Alaska.
He retired from MSU-B and later from the chorale, which he left after the 2005-06 season. In addition to Carolyn, David is survived by his sister Barbara (Jim) Brown, son David, daughter Janet, her husband Jesse and their children Allison and Aiden.