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St. Olaf Choir: Setting a century-long gold standard for choral singing

These young singers and their conductor, Anton Armstrong, represent all that is good about Minnesota.

Philip Brunelle

When F. Melius Christiansen founded the St. Olaf Choir 100 years ago at St. Olaf College in Northfield, he was a man with a mission and a vision. At a time when glee clubs and oratorio societies were the choirs of the day, F. Melius, a Norwegian immigrant and dauntless musical pioneer, introduced a cappella singing to America through the St. Olaf Choir. He not only created an ensemble that set a gold standard for unaccompanied choral singing, but he transformed the Midwest into a hotbed of choral activity.

The St. Olaf Choir is an exceptional ensemble that has sung for millions around the world, including presidents, kings and queens, and has collaborated with ensembles including VocalEssence, the Minnesota Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. These young singers and their conductor, Anton Armstrong, represent all that is good about Minnesota, including a commitment to artistic growth and their own personal development through mind, body and spirit.

In the 1920s the St. Olaf Choir put Minnesota on the map when it became one of the first choral ensembles to tour the nation regularly. During the Roaring 20s they started making recordings, as well as performing on the air when radio was in its infancy. Today the St. Olaf Choir has an impressive discography of 27 recordings; it tours nationally every year, and internationally every four years. It is also an integral part of the annual St. Olaf Christmas Festival, which celebrated its 100th in December with a live simulcast to more than 350 theaters nationwide and a telecast to 460 PBS stations that reached more than 2.7 million viewers.

Distinct character remains a constant

Having had only four conductors during the past century (including Olaf Christiansen and Kenneth Jennings), Anton Armstrong today balances a commitment to its a cappella legacy with music by contemporary composers, including spirituals and world music. While the concert programs are more varied today than 100 years ago, the St. Olaf Choir’s distinct character remains a constant decade after decade.

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After hearing the St. Olaf Choir in Atlanta in 1983, Robert Shaw, one of America’s greatest choral luminaries of the 20th century, wrote in a letter: “From all the standpoints — intonation, enunciation, tonal beauty and balance, rhythmic vitality and musical style — it was absolutely first-rate. … I do not know of any college or university in the United States where choral singing of this quality goes on day-in and year-out.”

Robert Shaw’s words remain relevant to this day. The influence of the St. Olaf Choir, particularly among those of us who treasure choral music, is immeasurable. This centennial, however, affords us the opportunity to give thanks for all this ensemble has done to help create the dynamic Minnesota choral scene we enjoy today.

Philip Brunelle is the artistic director of VocalEssence.

The St. Olaf Choir and Conductor Anton Armstrong will perform the final concert of their centennial season tour at 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 12, at Orchestra Hall.