St. Olaf Choir celebrates its centennial on a snowy night in Chicago

February 12, 2012
By Dennis Polkow

The St. Olaf Choir performed at Fourth Presbyterian Church on Friday night.

Given the fact that the downtown appearance of the St. Olaf Choir coincided with Friday’s snowstorm, it was understandable if some thought that perhaps the white winter terrain of the choir’s home state of Minnesota had somehow accompanied the singers to make them feel at home.

“Sorry about the snow,” joked director Anton Armstrong to a nonetheless packed Fourth Presbyterian Church. “We really did not bring it with us. In fact, we were coming from the other direction.”  Indeed, the three-week Midwest tour that is part of the choir’s two-year long centennial celebration had come from the south, having played Urbana the previous evening.

Adding to the winter ambience was that part of the evening devoted to holiday repertoire, including Kenneth Leighton’s A Hymn of the Nativity and René Clausen’s Ave Rosa.

Set to a Latin Marian text — which Armstrong joked was not what one might expect for a Lutheran choir to be singing — the radiant Clausen piece showcased a spectrum of sounds that the choir is capable of from hushed tranquility to radiant exuberance.

The Clausen piece was commissioned for the choir’s centennial, along with Ralph M. Johnson’s On Horizon’s Brim. Both were written by former choristers and the Johnson piece even set a poem that had been written by a St. Olaf graduate that praised the aesthetic aspects of God’s creation with a series of harmonically spacious variations on Veni Creator Spiritus, which spotlighted winds in its chamber music accompaniment.

There aren’t many choirs that would extravagantly travel with its own chamber orchestra, though the full ensemble was used for only a few pieces as much of the program was sung a cappella.

The orchestra was heard in Bach’s Singet dem Herren eine neue Lied, BWV 225, though with a four-to-one ratio of voices to instruments, balance was often an issue. The tempo here proved problematic as well, tended to be weighed down to accompany such a large cast of choristers in the winding lines of Bach’s counterpoint.

The choir fared far better in the high Renaissance counterpoint of Palestrina’s Sicut Servus, which opened the program and where lines were transparent and clear throughout, not an easy task for such a large chorus.

The generous two-and-a-half-hour program consisted largely of short, modern though stylistically nostalgic settings of religious texts. Other highlights included a handful of folk song arrangements, notably a joyfully rendered finale of the spiritual My Soul’s Been Anchored in the Lord that became a powerful witness to the values of St. Olaf, which Armstrong also embraced as being present in the venue.  The St. Olaf Choir director noted that the church had welcomed those “with no place to go” during that day’s snowstorm while the choir was rehearsing there.

Yes, there are music majors in St. Olaf’s Choir, but part of what makes it such a special chorus is that its devotion to artistic excellence cuts across all scholastic disciplines and entire generations of families have had members take part in the college’s extraordinary century-long tradition. Some were even introduced, including the grandson of the longtime organist of Fourth Presbyterian itself, who is now in the choir.

“There is a message beyond the transformative power of great art,” said Armstrong. “We wouldn’t have the division we are experiencing with today’s politicians had they sung in a choir, as they would know how to work in harmony.”

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