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St. Olaf Choir at Severance Hall February 2


St. Olaf Choir at Severance Hall February 2: a conversation with conductor Anton Armstrong
by Daniel Hathaway

When the esteemed St. Olaf Choir from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota sings at Severance Hall on Monday, February 2 at 7:30 pm, the ensemble will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of its conductor, Anton Armstrong. Only the fourth conductor in the choir’s 103-year history, Armstrong is also the first African American to hold that post.

Founded in 1912 by F. Melius Christiansen, St. Olaf Choir introduced the tradition of a cappella singing to a country where glee clubs and oratorio societies were the rule for choral music at the time. Also one of the first to undertake national tours, St. Olaf Choir has hit the road annually since 1920. The choir’s 2015 tour of 18 cities will include such important venues as Mechanics Hall in Worcester, MA, Battell Chapel at Yale, Carnegie Hall in New York, Princeton University Chapel, Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh, and Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis.

What’s in store musically for the 2015 tour? “I always need to do a smorgasbord program when we tour,” Armstrong said in a phone conversation from his office in Northfield. “There are so many different types of audience members: those who want to hear the latest thing, those who want the greatest works in the choral canon, those who know a little about St. Olaf, perhaps from the Christmas broadcasts. Or people like my late mother, who just wanted to hear ‘a few beautiful hymns sung well.’ I thought about starting with some Golden Oldies — some things that I loved most, but then I said, no. I came back to Bach and Mendelssohn, whose music was sung from the earliest days of the Choir.”

Thus two major works — J.S. Bach’s motet, Fürchte dich nicht, and Felix Mendelssohn’s Ehre sei Gott — will appear early in the St. Olaf program. Armstrong is sorry not to have instrumentalists available this time around for the Bach. “For the first time in 25 years, we had a conflict with the St. Olaf Orchestra tours. The motet should be accompanied by instruments, but as my mentor Helmut Rilling said during 18 years of conversations, ‘do you think that instruments went out into the graveyards in the rain?’ We’ll sing it unaccompanied, but it’s one of the most challenging pieces because of the chromaticism. Mendelssohn’s music for worship services is neglected, but we’ve very much enjoyed performing Ehre sei Gott.”

Among the new works St. Olaf Choir will be bringing on tour are pieces by Rosephanye Powell of Auburn University and Norwegian composer Kim André Arnesen. “Rosephanye heard the choir on tour and told me, ‘I can’t hope to express my gratitude, so may I write a composition for you?’ It came as a Christmas present so we’ve only had a few rehearsals to learn it.” With What Shall I Come is based on a text from Micah, and is scored for piano and violin — the latter to be played by St. Olaf faculty member Charles Gray.

Arnesen’s Flight Song is based on an inspirational text by a Norwegian poet. The work came to Anton Armstrong as a surprise birthday present. “The kids have loved it. Because those pieces were gifts, not just commissions, it’s exciting and very humbling.”

The program on February 2 will also pay tribute to the Choir’s former directors with works by Kenneth Jennings and F. Melius Christiansen, visit contemporary choral music with works by U.S. composers Anthony Bernarducci and Eric Whitacre, and introduce new sounds through Australian composer Sarah Hopkins’s Past Life Melodies, which is influenced by Aboriginal songs and includes overtone singing.

And Anton Armstrong will end with a section he says would have led his mom to exclaim, “this is a great program.” It includes the late Steven Paulus’s Pilgrim’s Hymn in lieu of a commissioned work Armstrong had proposed just before the composer fell ill. “It’s one way of honoring one of the great composer geniuses of our time.”

And though Armstrong notes that the singing of spirituals is not a long tradition at St. Olaf, he needs to bring his own cultural background into the Choir’s programming. “I want to honor the traditions of this college and this choir, but I also need to bring myself to the table with African American music, both in its art and folk forms.” Thus the final section will include spirituals arranged by Anthony Leach, L.L. Fleming and Moses Hogan.

“The essence of the spiritual is melody and rhythm, not melody and harmony. The harmony comes from the intertwining of melodic lines. I love it that Larry [Fleming] has got the gist of the simplicity of the spiritual. But Moses Hogan always finds a new way of casting traditional black melodies. The Battle of Jericho is a roof-raiser he wrote for his professional singers. It’s vibrant and energetic and whenever we rehearse it the kids say, ‘Yeah!’”

How does Anton Armstrong keep things fresh night after night on a three-week tour? “You’re the third person who’s asked me that in an interview. The truth is, I get older and they stay the same age. The challenge for all of us is not just to turn things on automatically every night. With every concert we have a chance to produce something fresh for a new audience. We want to share a gift with the audience and leave them transformed, changed as people who are more loving and more compassionate because of what they’ve just heard.”

Published on ClevelandClassical.com January 27, 2015.