For more than a century, a small Lutheran liberal arts college in Northfield, Minn., has produced some of the finest singers in the country.
Founded in 1912 by Norwegian-born musician F. Melius Christiansen at St. Olaf College, the St. Olaf Choir is known today as a vocal powerhouse unrivaled by most university choral groups.
“We make our music at the highest level possible and we offer it as a gift to others,” said Anton Armstrong, who became the fourth conductor of the St. Olaf Choir in 1990.
Equally familiar to fans of public television and radio’s “A Prairie Home Companion,” the 75-member mixed-voice student ensemble has toured Norway, participated in choral festivals in Seoul, South Korea, and Stasbourg, France, and performed at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, Carnegie Hall in New York City and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
When St. Olaf Choir performs next month at the Christopher Cohan Performing Arts Center in San Luis Obispo, Armstrong said, audiences will get an earful of fresh young talent.
“The students have gotten even brighter and more talented and more hardworking,” he said. “That’s part of the ethos of the upper Midwest.”
The courage to lead
The son of Caribbean immigrants, Armstrong got an early introduction to choral music while attending a Lutheran church in Long Island, N.Y., which he described as “a singing community and a community of faith that literally went from the crib to the grave.”
He joined the church’s junior choir at age 6. Later, after hearing the American Boychoir in concert, he spent two years attending the American Boychoir School in Princeton, N.J.
“That experience lit my fire for choral singing,” Armstrong said.
During high school, a pastor dragged Armstrong to hear St. Olaf Choir at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts — despite the fact that the student already had plans to attend a Moody Blues concert at Madison Square Garden that night.
“It was very impressive,” he recalled, “(but) there was no way I was going to go to school in Minnesota.”
After all, Armstrong said, he didn’t fit the profile of the typical St. Olaf student — Caucasian with Scandinavian roots. “This was in the days of my big old afro. I looked like Linc from ‘The Mod Squad,’” he recalled, referring to Clarence Williams III’s hip undercover cop.
“I never thought I’d quite have the courage” to join the choir, let alone lead it, he said.
Armstrong spent two years singing with St. Olaf Choir, graduating from the college in 1978 with a vocal performance degree. He attended graduate school at the University of Illinois and Michigan State University, and spent a decade on the faculty of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., before returning to St. Olaf College as choral conductor.
According to Armstrong, St. Olaf Choir has grown over the years from an austere church choir — the group’s original name was the St. Olaf Lutheran Choir — to a modern ensemble with contemporary clout and an impressive discography.
The choir has released 27 albums to date, including the three-album series “Great Hymns of Faith” and two discs featuring highlights from “A Prairie Home Companion.” Its performance at the 2011 St. Olaf’s Christmas Festival, which brings more than 15,000 people to campus each holiday season, was simulcast to almost 300 movie theaters and aired as a PBS special, “Christmas at St. Olaf: Rejoice, Give Thanks, and Sing”
St. Olaf Choir’s sound has evolved as well.
Under the leadership of its founder, the choir specialized in hymns sung a capella in the German and Scandinavian tradition.
When F. Melius Christiansen’s son, Olaf, took over full musical directing duties in 1943, he kept the choir’s a capella format but introduced early Baroque and Renaissance music to the mix.
His successor, St. Olaf College alumnus Kenneth Jennings, introduced orchestral music and modern choral works by the likes of Helmut Rilling and Robert Shaw following his arrival in 1968.
“He wasn’t afraid to veer into new traditions,” Armstrong said of Jennings, who even made musical forays into Asia and Eastern Europe.
Under Armstrong’s tenure, the choir’s repertoire has expanded to include choral music from across the world, including Africa and Latin America.
The goal, he said, “is trying to find a global message … that is relevant to our students and our audience,” he said.
On their current national tour, St. Olaf Choir members perform songs in French, German, Russian, Spanish and Hakka, a regional dialect used in southern China and Taiwan. Selections range from American spirituals to traditional European carols.
The program also features the work of recent St. Olaf graduates — including “The World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Evening Prayer” by Abbie Betinis, which is making its premiere on tour, and Stanford Scriven’s “Paume, Doux Lit Froissé,” which takes its romantic text from a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke.
“I do (these songs) because they represent something you can feel with your whole being — body, mind, spirit and voice,” Armstrong said.
Although about 75 percent of the program is sacred in nature, Armstrong said, “I’m not trying to convert anybody,” he said. “When we share this music, I hope that what we will share are spiritual truths.”
IF YOU GO
St. Olaf Choir
7:30 p.m. Feb. 6
Cohan Center, Cal Poly
$14 to $44
courtesy of st. olaf college
Anton Armstrong, top, is just the fourth conductor in the St. Olaf Choir’s history. The singers, above, are a mixed group of 75.