Young Voices, A Seasoned Ensemble 

St. Olaf Choir’s upcoming Nashville concert is welcome news for choral music lovers

St. Olaf Choir’s upcoming Nashville concert is welcome news for choral music lovers

St. Olaf Choir

8 p.m. Feb. 11 in War Memorial Auditorium

For choral music lovers, word that the St. Olaf Choir is coming to town is welcome news. Praised internationally for their sound and musicianship, the choir are best known, perhaps, through their annual appearances on public television during the Christmas season, but many listeners know them also through their many recordings and through their tours of the United States and abroad. The choir’s tradition of outstanding performance is the more remarkable because all of the singers are undergraduates.

Founded in 1875, St. Olaf remains a small Lutheran liberal arts college in Northfield, Minn. The school formed its first choir in 1912. The choir’s inaugural U.S. tour in 1920 attracted attention that has continued since, as their repertory has grown and diversified. During their more than 90 years, the choir have become for St. Olaf College what the King’s College men-and-boys choir long have been in Cambridge, England—an emblem of excellence recognized the world over.

For the King’s College Choir, the boy-chorister sound is what comes first to mind (even though men sing alongside boys). For the St. Olaf Choir, what comes to mind is the consistently first-rate musicianship displayed by the singers, male and female, most of them still in their teens. It is a youthful sound, not the sound of seasoned professionals whose voices do not mature before they are 40; it is Charlotte Church, not Jessye Norman. But the youthful sound is accurate in intonation, blend and balance, vowels are properly placed and shaped, consonants begin and end precisely where they should, and the compositions are shaped with tasteful appreciation. Voices this young almost never sing that well.

That these voices do so is a tribute to the tradition their leaders have built and are sustaining. Since their founding, the choir have had only four conductors. The founding director was F. Melius Christiansen, born in Norway and trained in Leipzig, Germany. From the outset, he set the choir’s musical standards very high, with a strong emphasis on unaccompanied singing. These a cappella performances earned high praise during the choir’s first tour along America’s east coast in 1920.

The founder was succeeded in 1943 by his son, Olaf Christiansen, who established himself as a choral director at Oberlin College in Ohio before coming to St. Olaf. He began expanding the repertory beyond his father’s Lutheran tradition to include Renaissance music, American folk songs and spirituals and contemporary music. Like his father, he performed his own compositions and arrangements as well.

In 1968, Kenneth Jennings, a St. Olaf alumnus and former chorister, became the choir’s third director. With a curator’s appreciation for the choir’s traditions, Jennings continued to move them in new directions, both in the music he programmed and in leading them on 12 international tours. In 1970, his choir became the first collegiate ensemble ever to perform at the Strasbourg Music Festival in France. In 1972, they were invited back to Strasbourg, where he led the St. Olaf Choir and the Strasbourg Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of J.S. Bach’s monumental Mass in B Minor. Through his efforts, internationally renowned conductors like Robert Shaw, Helmut Rilling and Sir David Willcocks came to St. Olaf to conduct choral masterworks.

In 1990, another St. Olaf alumnus became the choir’s fourth and present conductor—the first African American to fill the position. Dr. Anton Armstrong came back to his alma mater after a decade as choral conductor in Grand Rapids, Mich. He has continued—and extended—the St. Olaf tradition of embracing the best that has been composed and heard in the world. Under his leadership, the St. Olaf Choir have toured in this country, in Europe, in Australia and New Zealand; they also have recorded 11 CDs, including the choir’s first international recording, released in January 2003 through Linn Records of London.

St. Olaf’s choral music program is perhaps the college’s strongest attraction for students who enroll there. That gives the school a deep talent pool from which to select its premier choristers. Even so, the consistently high level at which they perform everything from J.S. Bach through Charles Ives and Krzysztof Penderecki to spirituals arranged by William Dawson is something to marvel at. They perennially draw high praise on tours that demand a marathoner’s stamina.

The tour that brings them to Nashville is a string of 16 single-performance stops that began Jan. 30 in Eau Claire, Wis., has reached as far south as Orlando, Fla., and will end Feb. 15 with an evening performance back on the St. Olaf campus in Minnesota. The program they’ve announced for next Wednesday is characteristically diverse. It opens with selections by old masters—Orlandus Lassus, William Byrd, J.S. Bach and Felix Mendelssohn—sung in Latin or in German. But about half the program is by composers born since 1946, including Blair professor David Childs (b. 1969). Childs and the Lithuanian Vutautas Miskinis (b. 1954) both set texts in Latin—Childs the same text used by 16th century composer William Byrd that will be heard earlier in the program—thus giving a fresh sound to ancient words.

Another of the settings from the second half of the 20th century is a Brazilian version of the 150th Psalm sung in Portuguese. And the program closes with a Gospel Mass by Robert Ray (b. 1946), who amalgamates the traditional texts of the centuries—old Catholic Mass, sung in English except for a few familiar Latin phrases, with the rousing rhythms and lush sonorities of African American worship services, accompanied by a small jazz combo.

The shape and substance of this program—where it begins and how it ends—may serve as emblem for the St. Olaf Choir. They have never abandoned the music they began with—the best the European tradition could offer, including unaccompanied motets. But as their own tradition has grown, their music too has grown to include varieties from all over the globe. They devote as much time to music by living composers as to music by venerated masters. And all this music they perform, at home and on the road, at a very high level. Hearing them, especially in War Memorial Auditorium, promises to be a delight.

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