On one hand, Anton Armstrong, conductor of the St. Olaf Choir — among the most beloved a cappella choirs in the U.S. — appreciates television’s “Glee” and “The Voice” for helping make ensemble singing more popular than ever.
On the other, he wants people to know there’s more to choral arts than popularity.
“Yes, we need entertainment,” Armstrong says. “But when people leave St. Olaf Choir concerts, if they haven’t been transformed in some way, then we’ve only done part of our job. The goal is to uplift and enrich lives. There’s a message of hope.”
The St. Olaf Choir, appearing in Benaroya Hall on Wednesday, has been spreading hope through music since its 1912 founding by F. Melius Christiansen, a Norwegian-born music teacher who joined the faculty of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. Armstrong, the choir’s fourth director, has led it since 1990.
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Christiansen, who studied music in Leipzig, Germany, brought intellectual rigor, spiritual depth and superior singing to the Christian liberal-arts school’s church choir. He embraced a broader, more challenging repertoire of Western music than had been previously heard from American choirs, including works by J.S. Bach, Russian choral masters and then-contemporary German composers.
That combination of adventurousness and high standards gradually established the St. Olaf Choir’s international reputation as a leader in the choral world. Made up of 75 undergraduates, the choir performs during annual tours of the U.S. and has appeared in major festivals overseas. The group will tour Norway this spring.
Armstrong famously brought the St. Olaf Choir to the White House in 2005 to commemorate the National Day of Prayer. But the group has a strong secular following from its 27 recordings and annual television broadcasts of its “St. Olaf Christmas Festival.”
Wednesday’s concert reflects Armstrong’s longtime commitment to uphold the choral canon while broadening repertoire. Alongside motets by Bach are those of Baroque Mexican composer Juan de Lienas; also a new arrangement of Norwegian melody “In the Shepherd’s Keeping”; and “Way Over In Beulah Lan,’ ” a setting of slave songs by African-American composer Stacey Gibbs.
Armstrong, who is black, sang in the St. Olaf Choir as a student under conductor Kenneth Jennings. He says that in his 23 years at the helm, he has pursued eclecticism.
“When I started here, I wanted to bring in African-American spirituals. The old-timers said, well, maybe that’s your tradition but it’s not ours. But music is for all people, and I want to explore the world in a global expression of choral music. At the same time, as an African American living in a Scandinavian-Lutheran world, I know what it can be like to be tokenized. I don’t want that to happen musically.
“I take a smorgasbord approach, where there’s something on the table for everyone.”
Armstrong notes that 40 percent of the students comprising the St. Olaf Choir are not music majors. Yet they participate because of the rewards of ensemble singing.
“It’s a powerful opportunity for people to express what’s inside of them,” he says. “Choral music lifts people and crosses barriers. It is a bridge in a way that other art forms aren’t.”
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org