St. Olaf Choir in Wichita: An Interview with Conductor Anton Armstrong


The internationally-renowned St. Olaf Choir arrives in Wichita next week as part of its 2016 National Tour. In advance of the concert, I had the opportunity to speak with conductor Dr. Anton Armstrong. He looked back at his longtime affiliation with the St. Olaf Choir (over a quarter of a century), provided details on some of the compositions the Choir will be performing, and spoke about his inclusive philosophy of programming and the challenges of balancing tradition and innovation in a church school.

Guy Vollen: Would you like to speak about the section of the program paying tribute to Kenneth L. Jennings (Armstrong’s predecessor as conductor, who passed away in 2015)?

Anton Armstrong:
Dr. Jennings served on the St. Olaf faculty for 37 years, and the last 22 he served as conductor of the St. Olaf Choir. He was my mentor; I actually sang under his direction my last two years at St. Olaf, and Kenneth Jennings was really almost without peer among choral conductors. He followed 65 years of the founder of this choir, F. Melius Christiansen, and his son Olaf, who in many ways, while he added his own distinctive mark, perpetuated the ideals set forth by his father. And when Dr. Jennings took the helm of the choir in 1968, he respected that legacy, and he built upon its best traits, but he also understood that it needed to grow in new directions. So first of all it was creating a natural and more healthy sound for the choir, which to use his own words “had gotten a bit stiff”; a wider repertoire, especially looking at music that was now being published and available to singers from a more modern period, but especially went back and started looking for earlier music with greater historical performance accuracy; and he introduced the use of instruments, because up until that point the St. Olaf Choir had been known primarily as an a cappella choir that sang without any accompaniment. He introduced the use of instruments, and also he began the use of secular music, and even some wider global music.

Kenneth Jennings was also a wonderful composer. Certainly, during his teaching career he didn’t have a lot of time for that. He did some: actually, the last work of that set, “All You Works of the Lord,” was written in 1981, while he was still on the faculty. The other two pieces come from the 1990s: he wrote the “Spiritual Songs” and “The Lord is the Everlasting God” in the first decade after his retirement. They show I think, though, the consummate craftsmanship that he brought to choral composition. Always text was paramount with him, and the beautiful setting, how that was handled as a composer, and you saw that revealed with how he interpreted text with a choral ensemble.

GV: I see you’re working with Andre Thomas.

AA: Andre Thomas and I have been friends for 38 years; we were in graduate school together, and our friendship has been both professional and he’s one of my closest friends, so it’s nice when you have talented people like that you can go to. And certainly, Dr. Thomas is a native of your city. He still loves Wichita, and he is a graduate of Friends University, he began his teaching career there some years ago, and he still considers that home, he still has family there, so it’s also neat to be bringing that piece on this tour to his hometown. This “Credo,” actually, I did not put “premiere performance,” because I cannot actually state that for a fact, but I know we’re doing some of the earliest performances. He and I will debut “Credo” at Carnegie Hall in March. The music was available now, and I don’t want to go to Carnegie Hall in March not knowing the piece. This was a great piece to take out. The New York people were a little bit miffed.

GV: So is that something I can say is a “preview”?

AA: It’s a preview, yeah, so he and I are doing what we’re now saying is the New York Carnegie Hall debut of this piece, with a choir of about 800 singers. I will be conducting, and he will be at the piano.

GV: That is exciting. And I notice you’re programming a piece by a student composer. Would you like to say anything about “And You Will Sleep” and the context of the composition?

AA: Yes. Philip [Biedenbender] is a senior in the choir, and you’ll also see him featured on this concert if you’re able to attend; he’s one of our two student pianists. He’s a very gifted young man. He actually approached me last spring and said, “I want to write a piece for the Christmas festival,” and to his credit he worked and had a piece ready for me when we resumed school in the fall. We went through a couple of periods of revision. First of all, I’m not a composer, but I will take the piece, I will sing through part of it, I will play it at the piano, and I thought, it feels good under my fingers. Vocally, there were some points where I asked him to do some rewriting where it was too complicated, and I think he was trying to do text painting, but I said it’s maybe too complicated. Less is more sometimes. Well, he found that balance, and there was a portion in the first version: most of the text is by his mother, and then they had inserted text from Scripture. Well, the first text that they used, the music changed, and it just didn’t work. I said, this sounds like two different pieces right here, and he said, “I know. I’m not happy with it.” He said, “We have another possibility,” and this was the verse from Philippians that we later used. And all of a sudden it became a cohesive entity.

What I appreciate is, his mom came in and shared: the text of this piece speaks of “The walls of a stable are not worthy of the King. You come, little one, born of the songs of angels, echoes of prophets, and the life of a strange star. Do not cry, though you must lie on this rough, unforgiving wood, wrapped in lengths of linen, and you will sleep.” And she goes into this text from Philippians from that. But she came to talk to the choir, and it’s a paradox: the “unforgiving wood” is not just the imagery of a manger, it also refers to the imagery of the cross, which Christ was killed on, and the linen is not just the swaddling cloth but also the linens that wrap the body of Jesus afterward. So this image of this paradox–he’s young, twenty-one, twenty-two years old–he really captured this.

This is an emerging talent and he is a very humble young man. Very gifted but very humble and very thoughtful. I am not one, especially on a tour program, to put a student composition out simply because I think it’s neat to feature. But we’ve had, especially in the last ten to fifteen years, wonderful growth in those coming to St. Olaf who want to study composition, and a fine faculty of mentor-composers on the St. Olaf faculty, so a number of our students are hitting things out of the park even before they leave college. We’ve had several students who have been award-winners, both state and nationally, for their compositional skills, and so I’m delighted to have found a piece that not only is very fine, but we’re able to say, “this is something that can stand on the same program with music of J. S. Bach, the music of Kurt Weill.” It’s a lovely piece, and I think one that is going to be very emotionally compelling and musically compelling to those who hear it.

GV: That’s great. I look forward to hearing it. So I can see from your program that, like you said, you’ve really broken it wide open in terms of repertoire. What else would you like to highlight about the pieces the Choir will be singing?

AA: The music of Bach has always been part of the staple repertoire, even back to the founding days of F. Melius Christiansen. “Ich Lasse Dich Nicht” is a motet that is not one of what I call the “Big Six,” things like “Singet dem Herrn,” and “Der Geist” and “Jesu, meine Freude,” but it is lovely. It comes from an earlier period of Bach before he was in Leipzig, and then the piece was added onto during his Leipzig years. It’s a delightful piece. For seventeen summers I’ve been on the conducting faculty of the Oregon Bach Festival, in Eugene, Oregon, so this is a piece I got to explore last summer, and wanted to bring it here. I found out later that this piece was done one time by the St. Olaf Choir back in the 1950s when Olaf Christiansen had the choir, but I think he did it in English. I didn’t recognize it at first until I was doing some reading.

The “Magnificat” by David Childs was commissioned by me for the Oregon Bach Festival. I direct a high school program there of extremely talented high school students. I founded that organization–the Stangeland Family Youth Choral Academy is what it’s called–in 1998 and two summers ago we were celebrating the 15th anniversary of the SFYCA, and so the “Magnificat” was a commission by the Bach Festival for that occasion, and so this will only be the second set of performances that it has. David Childs is a composer and a conductor in Dallas. I often try to find music at least that represent composers who are either in or have a connection with a region, so Andre’s piece for one, and this piece by David Childs. It’s a beautiful piece for organ and choir. David is a New Zealander by birth and upbringing, and moved to the United States as an adult, married an American, and lives and conducts in Dallas. But for many years David’s father was the organist and choir director at Christchurch Cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand, and you feel this very strong Anglican tradition coming out in this piece.

I think one of the unique pieces on this program, not only for the St. Olaf Choir, but I don’t think it’s a well-known piece at all, is this “Kiddush” by Kurt Weill. Weill you know as writing for the theater and other things. Last summer at a conference of Chorus America, the Zamir Chorale of Boston, which is maybe the preeminent choral organization in this country dealing with music of the Jewish tradition, had this as part of a workshop, and I was just captivated. It’s written for chorus and soloists, and it was written for Shabbat service for Weill’s father’s synagogue. You get the harmonic flavor of Kurt Weill, you get the influence of blues notes, but for choir and soloists and organ: it’s like a breath of fresh air. And the kids have enjoyed it and we’ve found soloists who can sing it in the choir, so it’s really turning into a neat piece.

And the last section, I was simply going to say was a collection of hymns and spiritual songs, so you know “Come, Ye Disconsolate” is actually a setting for men’s voices. Part of, for me in a college of the church, is to still keep a younger generation–it’s why the St. Olaf Choir actually was founded. F. Melius Christiansen started this choir because he felt the young people of these new immigrants–these Canadian immigrants, these Norwegian immigrant children–were forgetting the great hymns of their forebears. Well, the same thing could be said a hundred-some-odd years later, with the current generation. And you know for a lot of students, they did not know this hymn. When you hear the guys sing it it’s very moving. Terre Johnson’s setting is beautiful.

And “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” is not the typical tune that most people know about. This is actually an older version that is known mostly in the black community: [sings] “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, Lord.” It has stayed in the black community. But I love that “Nobody Knows” because I think everybody’s going to be expecting us to sing something, and a lot of them won’t know this tune, and as an African-American I see a lot of people arranging spirituals, and even African-Americans, the younger ones. The slave song is basically a simple song that had a natural improvisation with layered melodies that came together to make harmony. So the essence of the true slave song is melody and rhythm.

I think of programming is a smorgasbord type of thing, that there needs to be something on the program for everyone. There are going to be those there because they will love some of the new pieces, those who just want to hear Bach and Mendelssohn (“Lift Thine Eyes”) and they could go to heaven with that. Ginastera (“O Vos Omnes”), you know, for some people that will be out of the box, not quite like Penderecki and Ligeti, but it certainly is pushing things for a lot of people. But I’m also cognizant that we’re going through areas in this tour that are still strongly faith-based communities on this tour. I call this the “I-35 tour,” driving around I-35 to get all the way down to San Antonio and back. There’s a reason we’re in many more churches on this tour than maybe a tour to the East coast. If you look at the tour book, we were in many of their major concert halls, college concert halls; that’s not so much the case with this one. There are strong communities of faith that have thriving music programs, and so the music reflects that, the tour program reflects that, but with a wide variety.

I always think, “If my mother was in the audience, what would she want to hear?” I mean, she would love Bach, she would love Mendelssohn. She might put up with some of the other stuff, but if I gave her those hymns and those spirituals, she’d be a happy camper. So there’s something I think on the table for everyone: for the choral aficionado, those people who want to come and maybe have no faith connection but they appreciate the artistry of the choir, maybe they’ve seen it on television or heard the recordings; and then for that person of faith who just needs to come and fill their soul in a certain way, and maybe some of the other music will be high-falutin and off-putting, but when you sing “It is Well with My Soul” it just goes right to the core of who they are. It transcends age and race, and all the other things that can be barriers. I hope that this concert can bring people together: we live in a country right now that is living in fear, that is living in division, and I hope that even for the ninety minutes people experience it they can find comfort, they can find hope, they can find unity.

GV: You mentioned the school’s foundation in the faith tradition and Norwegian immigrants, and obviously there’s this very concentrated Lutheran tradition in your part of the country, but with St. Olaf’s reputation I’m sure you attract students from all over now.

AA: We certainly do.

GV: So would you like to say anything about that diversity, and how far some of your students have come to be part of the choir?

AA: This is where we maybe are a little bit different from some of our wonderful sister schools in this region: if you were to look at the personnel pages for instance of, maybe, Concordia or Luther, you’d find excellent singers. Their choirs are excellent. But you’d find very regional schools. You’d find a lot of people from Minnesota, and Iowa, maybe South Dakota, Wisconsin. You’ll find certainly a fair amount of those populated in this choir; you’re going to find people from literally throughout the nation. I think this year I don’t have any international students; last year I did have three. But it’s a wide view.

And when we talk about diversity: now you’re talking to the African-American conductor, but I want to go beyond. You’ll see racial diversity: I have African-American students in there, I have Asian students in that choir, I have Latino students, I have biracial people in that choir that some of you wouldn’t ever recognize, depending upon how you’re looking at them. But for me diversity is also–and it’s not a cop-out–I have a variety of socio-economic [backgrounds]; I have young people in that choir who, yes, would say they are people of faith, they come heavily from a Christian tradition. But you see Kurt Weill’s in there because I also have students in that choir who do come from a Judaic [background], they come from mixed–I have a student in there who one parent’s Jewish, one parent’s Christian. Whether it’s Muslim, whether it’s Buddhist, or as they would say today, none (they have no faith affiliation, whether they call themselves atheist or agnostic), the only thing I ask–and there are a couple of students, I very well know, they’ve been very pronounced without being offensive about it–that they’re in this choir because they can appreciate, respect the high artistry and the music-making in the choir. They can understand and appreciate the wonderful texts that are experienced, whether or not they can formally say that this is their journey. But they are welcome, and I will say to the student, “You are free. What I won’t tolerate is somebody who will be dismissive of that, if you’re going to be part of that, but I’m not asking you to swallow something that you can’t personally believe.” But there is a mutual respect amongst that.

And I think that’s true Lutheranism in the broadest sense: it’s a very ecumenical movement. And I’m saying this to you because I’m on a committee that’s dealing with this, because as we’re diversifying our community at St. Olaf, there are a lot of people–some staff, some students–who feel that if you’re not Lutheran, you’re being excluded, and we’re trying to figure out, how do you explain that Lutheranism is about a global awareness, you know? And I think at least Lutheranism as it’s practiced in the twenty-first century, and not a parochial viewpoint but if you actually go back, it has always been, especially in Lutheran education, one that seeks excellence, so academic excellence is not to be compromised. It’s a very interesting paradox, an interesting tension, for the search for excellence and truth, and also that we believe that we’re rooted in a sphere of a creator God, but a creator God who doesn’t ask you to be myopic, and to be narrow about how you view things. So I think that over the years this choir has been kind of a microcosm of the college in saying yes, we are still faith-based, but we look beyond that. There is almost no secular music on the program this year: that was intentional. Last year you would have seen almost a third of the program was secular. And part of that was where we were going. We were out on the East coast, a very different thing, and an audience that is seeking different things. This is my twenty-sixth year as conductor, and I understand that much, and I travel the country as a guest conductor a great deal, and you get a feel for what people want. I’m not in any way trying to type-cast a region I think, but you understand what people seek. If I took this sort of program to the Pacific Northwest, it would not be met in the same way. They would enjoy part of it, but they would want something else, and I know they’d want something else.

The great work of F. Melius Christiansen, and John Finley Williamson with the Westminster Choir, and the heavy hitters like Robert Shaw, they did their work well enough that they planted seeds, and they’re no longer the only thing on the block, but I still think the St. Olaf Choir is a pace-setting choir, a choir that not only brings artistic excellence, but what we try to do through our concerts is a transformational experience. It goes beyond entertainment; it wants to touch the entirety of the listener, in body, mind, spirit, and voice.

Dr. Armstrong will lead the St. Olaf Choir in concert in Wichita at East Heights United Methodist Church (4407 East Douglas Avenue) 7 pm, Tuesday, February 2, 2016.

Interview conducted by phone Thursday, January 21, 2016. Edited for clarity and length.


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