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Sing and Rejoice!

By Marty Steiner

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It’s all on stage for the Christmas Festival Finale! Over 500 musicians celebrate.

While many, or even most, colleges attempt to project themselves as unique, St. Olaf truly IS unique! The college was founded in 1874 as a co-educational liberal arts college by pioneer Norwegian Lutheran pastors, farmers and businessmen. This was particularly early for co-education. Located in Northfield, a small community in southeast Minnesota, the city’s motto is “Cows, Colleges and Contentment.” That motto is a reflection of the importance of St. Olaf and another liberal arts college to the community.

This area has a population with a rich traditional Norwegian background. It is notable that a significant part of that Nordic tradition is the Lutheran Church and today the college is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The college, in fact, is named for Norway’s patron saint, the martyred Nordic King Olaf, from the middle ages.

While maintaining its strong program for the study of Scandinavian culture, St. Olaf has become known worldwide for both its choirs and instrumental organizations. Among the college’s clearly stated mission in practice is “to be an inclusive community.” Nowhere is this more evident in practice than in the work and performance of the school’s choirs.

The choral program for many St. Olaf students begins in their first year. The Manitou Singers is made up of 100 select first year women. This means there is a total turnover of personnel every year. One of this group’s responsibilities is providing chapel music at worship services including the opening worship service of the college each year. Their repertoire includes sacred, secular, and popular ballads. They also perform in the family weekend and their own spring concerts as well as with the St. Olaf Choir for the annual Christmas festival.

The Manitou Singers are directed by Therees Hibbard, an associate professor of music. Equipped with a doctor of music education and choral conducting, she spent a number of years directing and teaching in the UK choral community prior to St. Olaf.

The men’s first year choir, established in 1935, is the Viking Chorus. Directed by Tesfa Wondermagegnehu, their repertoire includes an emphasis on sacred motets, anthems, and cantatas, as well as music associated with men’s choral performance. This is particularly wide-ranging from contemporary chorales, folk songs to spirituals. Members are drawn from across the spectrum of St. Olaf study with less than half majoring in music.

Tesfa operates under the mantra “Excellence is never an accident!” Much of his efforts are focused on social justice (peace, equality, and respect) through music. He has also served as composer-in-residence for Choirs of America at Carnegie Hall.

These first-year groups provide a base of talent for the other choral groups. They also serve to introduce the students to both the rigors and rewards of participating in such well-regarded choirs. In a sense they are internal feeder groups. All choral groups have extensive rehearsal schedules outside of the academic schedule and frequently perform off campus and on tour.

Directed by Therees Hibbard, the St. Olaf Chamber Singers is a small, 20-24 member group selected by audition to perform music focused on the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, as well as modern periods. Many of the chamber singers are also in the larger ensembles.

Created in the 1960s to provide additional choir opportunities for the student body, the 100-member St. Olaf Cantorei group includes instrumental accompaniment. The group is known for providing a distinctive musical and spiritual experience. The Cantorei is conducted by James E. Bobb. Bobb brings organ and harpsichord performance experience from the Eastman School of Music as well as having served as a minister of music in Lutheran churches for many years.    

Anton Armstrong between rehearsals.

In 1925 the St. Olaf Chapel Choir was established. Today it’s one of two mixed St. Olaf choruses specializing in performing oratorio and larger works. This chorus frequently collaborates with the orchestra and the other three St. Olaf instrumental ensembles. In addition to leading worship of the student congregation, it performs Vespers services and collaborates with area high school choirs.    

Any one of these choral groups would be the proud standard bearers at a college or university. Each stands on its own tradition and role at St. Olaf.

Founded in 1912, the St. Olaf Choir is setting new directions into various different genres and interpretations while retaining its tradition of presenting tonal purity. From its outset students are pushed to perfect a tone that is disciplined, controlled and free of vibrato. That sound, controlled, in pitch, and with smooth delivery, is this choir’s hallmark. Many regard this group as America’s premier a cappella choir.

Today, as only the fourth director in over a century, Anton Armstrong is extending the repertoire with new content including Pacific Rim, African, and Latin American music.  Armstrong comes from a strong Caribbean family background, Antigua and St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. His parents lived on Long Island, New York where Anton and his mother were in their church choir. He was taken, “dragged”, to a St. Olaf Choir concert at Lincoln Center by his pastor. This was at Armstrong’s mother’s behest, in spite of the fact that he already had tickets with friends to a Moody Blues concert that same evening. His pastor told him, “You’ll love this choir!” “That experience lit my fire for choral singing” Armstrong would later acknowledge.

Anton earned his bachelor’s degree at St. Olaf in 1978 and was a member of the choir for only his last two years there. The choir was then under the direction of Kenneth Jennings, the third choir director in St. Olaf’s history. Jennings mentored Armstrong and Armstrong replaced Jennings 12 years later. In the interim 12 years Armstrong had earned his master’s and a doctorate with Celebrating 75 Years of Excellence: the Evolution of the St. Olaf Choir as his thesis. If anyone knows and appreciates the St. Olaf choir history and culture, it is Anton Armstrong.

The incredible richness and depth of the St. Olaf choral program may be best seen in their traditional annual Christmas festival. This year, the 108th year, presented a 20-page program, “A New Song of Grace and Truth”, which listed the festival performing groups and their concert selections. The 2019 Festival featured the St. Olaf Orchestra, Choir, Cantorei, Chapel Choir, Manitou Singers, Viking Chorus, and Handbell Choir both individually and in a massed finale performance.  Many of these featured selections are Ole’s, St. Olaf graduates, compositions or arrangements.  The festival opened with the premier of Ole Matthew Peterson’s Newborn Glitter. This was followed by St. Olaf Music Professor Emerita Carolyn Jennings’ A New Magnificat. In addition to having served as the St. Olaf Music Department head, Jennings also directed the senior choir at a local Northfield Lutheran church for over 30 years. Arrangements of All Earth is Hopeful and title by James E. Bobb followed.

The festival concluded with a massed ensemble of five choirs and the St. Olaf Orchestra. The sound of over 500 musicians, under the baton of festival artistic director Dr. Armstrong, filled the auditorium. (Note that the total enrollment of St. Olaf is around 3,000 students.)

Choral Director spoke with Armstrong in the very midst of this year’s Christmas festival and found the same energetic enthusiasm that has forged the St. Olaf Choral program into a continuing legendary organization. Asked about his spiritual journey to a Lutheran college, Armstrong pointed out that his family, coming from the formerly Danish West Indies, now the U.S. Virgin Islands, already had been Lutherans!

Armstrong, a personally acknowledged product of mentoring, was asked about his role as a mentor. He responded reading an excerpt from a letter that he had recently received from a high school choir director in Kansas. The letter reads: “I was very inspired by what you shared several years ago when I was entering the high school choral field after years as an elementary teacher. Your words gave me hope that I could step into something new, vocal music that I always loved, and make a difference. Now in my tenth year as a high school choir director it’s better than I ever imagined!” St. Olaf is not the only beneficiary of Armstrong’s talent, energy and commitment. He is the founding music director of the Oregon Bach Music Festival’s Strangeland Family Youth Choral Academy. As editor of two different music publishers, Armstrong brings new music opportunities to choirs worldwide.

The choir also shares its message and joy by going on concert tours. Their winter tour, this January 18 through February 11, offered fifteen appearances across the upper mid-west and northeast. This is the choir’s centennial tour and included a concert in the Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall, just as it did on its very first tour.

Armstrong will also be celebrating his thirtieth anniversary as the choir’s director during this tour. What have the 30 years at St. Olaf and the myriads of his other choir activities produced in the life of Anton Armstrong and in his ongoing teaching and directing motivation? “I believe that it takes the whole person…body, mind, spirit, and voice to sing and rejoice”. He went on, “I want the power of music, that spirit, to transform those who perform and (also) those who will hear the message. For me, that has been the very powerful reason for why we do what we do!”

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