St. Olaf Choir brings luster and individuality to wide range of music

February 02, 2015
By Wynne Delacoma

The St. Olaf Choir performed Saturday night at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago.

There’s a pleasant little mystery at the heart of many good choral concerts. How can a (usually) large group of singers make a (usually) imposing space like a cathedral or a concert hall seem so intimate?

The audience that filled Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church Saturday night to hear the St. Olaf Choir from Northfield, Minnesota had the happy task of contemplating that question. An a cappella group of 75 young men and women from St. Olaf’s College, a small liberal arts school affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church, the choir tours regularly and Chicago is always one of their stops. (They return to the area Feb. 14 for a concert at Northwestern University’s Pick-Staiger Concert Hall.)

Saturday’s audience, many of them alumni, knew they could expect good things. The 103-year old choir, led for the past 25 years by Anton Armstrong, is ranked among the country’s premiere choral groups.

But the range of St. Olaf’s repertoire and their sumptuous sound was still surprising. And the intimate atmosphere the choir established in Fourth Presbyterian’s soaring, Gothic space was exhilarating.

The concert’s repertoire ranged from William Byrd and Bach to Bernstein and two world premieres. The choir’s sound was lustrous, its round tones and soft-edged phrasing never becoming too plushy. The vocal blend was seamless. Sopranos sounded as full-bodied as the basses, and the singing was fresh, lithe and flexible.

Highlights among the 19 pieces included Bach’s motet Furchte dich nicht (BWV 228). This is a cheerful, bouncy piece, the Lord reassuring the human race that he will never leave them. The choir’s various sections tossed Bach’s piquant phrases back and forth with youthful agility. Phrases were crisp and the energy infectious.

Both of the world premieres, With What Shall I Come by Rosephayne Powell and Flight Song by Kim Andre Arnesen, had smooth, pop-like melodic outlines, though Powell’s song swung into slightly jazz-flavored territory. Past Life Memories by New Zealand composer Sarah Hopkins was intriguingly strange. Inspired by Australian aboriginal music, the wordless piece melted into vocal overtones that sounded more like flutes than human voices. Charles Gray, playing both violin and viola in four pieces, including With What Shall I Come, added a bright, tensile thread to the musical texture.

Armstrong and his singers used two seemingly minor technical effects to heighten their connection with the audience. Most choirs, especially ones specializing in classical or sacred repertoire, stand stock still. But the St. Olaf singers swayed gently from side to side. They didn’t necessarily move in time to the music and each row of singers swayed in the opposite direction to the row in front of them. The effect was soothing, like watching a wheat field rippled by warm, leisurely breezes. The potentially distracting device sent a powerful message. These singers were individual human beings, not a well-polished music machine.

The other device involved the choir’s sound. Whether the text was Latin, German or English, the singers hurled crisp consonants into Fourth Presbyterian’s resonant space. Their hard Cs crackled, their Ts were full bite and juice. Amid the sumptuous wash of open vowels, those consonants caught our attention. Like well-chosen words in a lively conversation, they were tiny jolts of energy that drew us in.

On Saturday morning Fourth Presbyterian was the site of Ernie Banks’ funeral. With their concert Saturday night the St. Olaf Choir echoed the optimism and hope in the future so typical of the Cubs’ legendary star. It was reassuring to hear young singers bringing fresh life to the ancient art of choral music.

The St. Olaf Choir’s winter tour continues through February 16.

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