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St. Olaf Choir Centennial Tour

This review is an Ionarts exclusive.

Monday evening the St. Olaf College Choir (Northfield, Minn.), conducted by Anton Armstrong, graced the stage of the Music Center at Strathmore, performing for a capacity audience. Swaying and singing from memory for their two-and-a-half-hour program, holding hands and dressed in purple velvet robes hemmed a strict distance from the ground, the St. Olaf Choir’s religious program (all but two pieces) delivered. The effortless breath support and impeccable, shimmering tuning of this ensemble of seventy-five young singers were remarkable. The combination of refined diction, uniform vowels, relaxed vocal production, and exceptional direction produced profound musical results, starting with the warm, glistening sound and long lines of Palestrina’s Sicut Cervus.

A small instrumental ensemble joined the choir for Bach’s motet for double choir Singet dem Herrn, which actually might have had more excitement without the instrumentalists. Whatever German and important musical lines obscured due to a rather brisk tempo in the first movement were made up for by a delicate second movement and a balanced and clear third movement. Unfortunately, the quick notes of the fugue prior to the Halleluja created somewhat obnoxiously predictable pointillist impressions instead of creative linear shapes.

The program comprised a number of works that at times seemed chosen, or were even written with the primary aim, to showcase the St. Olaf Choir’s wonderful sound, leaving musical goals second. The choir was most challenged and musically impressive in the premiere of the mystical Ave Rosa, by René Clausen (St. Olaf, '74), well sustained by the low basses who often kept a full sound after the rest of the choir would taper a phrase, and Kenneth Leighton’s A Hymn of the Nativity, which bustles in exciting complexity at the lines “Thee, meek Majesty, soft King of simple graces and sweet loves.”

The choir seemed less challenged by works that might not suit universal taste, particularly those by the three previous St. Olaf Choir conductors, F. Melius Christiansen (1912-43), Olaf Christiansen (1941-68), and Kenneth Jennings (1968-90). Additionally, the Minnesotans humorously fumbled the pronunciation of Moses Hogan’s roof-raiser My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord by clumsily singing over and over: “Mah souls been ancherrrd...” At least they got the “mah” part right. The work dramatically built in tempo, volume, and excitement with their biggest sound always adding resonance with a trace of neither harshness nor letting one’s hair down.

After introducing the St. Olaf College president and the Norwegian Ambassador (the college was founded by Norwegian pastors and farmers in 1874), Armstrong gave uplifting remarks about music and its role in the world. Cleverly, he mentioned that he “wished [he] could get the members of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government in a choir, so they could work in harmony.”

The St. Olaf Choir’s Centennial Tour continues in Grand Rapids (Mich.), Urbana (Ill.), Chicago, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis, and then back home to Northfield on February 13.

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