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St. Olaf Choir’s spirit of artistic collaboration is worth emulating

Courtesy of the author
Anton Armstrong, Jean Parish and Bob “B.J.” Johnson at Carnegie Hall.

In the arts we speak often about collaboration, especially as an essential ingredient for artistic success. The St. Olaf Choir and Conductor Anton Armstrong demonstrated that Friday night at Carnegie Hall. As a member of that New York audience, I knew another important collaboration also played an invaluable role: the behind-the scenes work of the ensemble’s long-time manager, Bob (“B.J.”) Johnson.

During the past 25 years Anton and B.J. have built an artistic alliance that has propelled the St. Olaf Choir to new artistic heights, presenting concerts around the world for hundreds of thousands of choral music fans, including presidents, kings and queens, as well as creating dozens of recordings, and presenting concerts on radio, TV and online.

B.J. will retire in June after 37 years as manager of music organizations at St. Olaf College, where he first served with the St. Olaf Choir’s third conductor, Kenneth Jennings, and it is fitting to acknowledge the role he has played in inspiring generations of students about the value of collaboration. While many students performing in the ensembles at St. Olaf have built careers as performers, conductors and composers, B.J. also demonstrated that there are important roles to play for those who choose to work behind the scenes in support of artists, ensembles and organizations. 

I count myself among those B.J. inspired, and I credit him for unwittingly guiding me toward a career in arts management that began with my first job after graduating from St. Olaf College with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, continuing my career devoted to the arts with the Chicago Children’s Choir, the New York Philharmonic, and currently as general manager of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra

A fearless leader, rooted in mission

B.J. has often described himself as a cross between the great impresario Sol Hurok and circus master P.T. Barnum. He is a fearless artistic leader who knows how to build on successes, and when to move on when something doesn’t work as expected. These are essential qualities for an effective collaborator. He always remains rooted in mission, and never loses sight of his service to the students and music organizations at St. Olaf College.

Even if not consciously, students can’t help but witness the value of all aspects of work related to producing an artistic product by watching Anton and B.J. work together. Students are not shielded or exempt from the work involved in bringing the performances to the stage. Each student is required to participate on the crew, hauling risers, acoustical shells and robe boxes off buses for each performance, led by elected student leaders directing everything from the set-up to the pre-concert devotions offered by students prior to each concert. Were Anton himself or any artistic leader not supportive of the value of these roles and the importance of this student work behind the scenes, the very ability to tour and present concerts in the way the St. Olaf Choir has done for decades would be in jeopardy and perhaps even unsustainable. 

But this common understanding of value forms the basis for the core belief shared by both Anton and B.J. in their mutually supporting roles as “servant spirits,” serving students, audiences and the music itself. Their deep respect for each other, shared enthusiasm for the students’ experiences – both musical and beyond — and their unwavering commitment to delivering their message and art to ever-expanding audiences, inspires students to envision themselves as future contributing artists, administrators in the arts, or ideally, both.

Recordings, telecasts

He has continuously grown the more publicly known facets of the St. Olaf music organizations, including St. Olaf Records, because he understood the importance of recording and distributing the music of St. Olaf’s ensembles. He nurtured the St. Olaf Christmas Festival telecasts into a nationwide holiday tradition in collaboration with TPT and PBS, including “A Christmas in Norway With the St. Olaf Choir,” which earned two regional Emmy® Awards last year.

The St. Olaf Choir earns rave reviews year after year, and even though a good share of the singers in the ensemble turn over each year, there’s a consistency in the voice of the ensemble and the development of the audience that is made possible through the collaboration and longevity of service both Anton and B.J. have provided. This year Anton celebrates 25 years as the conductor of the St. Olaf Choir, only the fourth in its history. B.J. concludes nearly four decades of service, and is only the third manager the ensemble has had in its 103 years.

As they make their way back from New York to Minnesota during their final national tour together, I have no doubt that they are reminiscing about the adventures they have shared together, particularly the impressive array of artistic successes.

If you are in the audience during Anton and the St. Olaf Choir’s final tour concert at Orchestra Hall this Sunday (Feb. 15, 3 p.m.), please be sure to add some extra applause for the man in the wings. B.J.’s expertise in building long-term collaborative success in support of artists is worth emulating and recognition in an overt display of gratitude.

Jean Parish is general manager of The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. She is a graduate of St. Olaf College, and a former member of the St. Olaf Choir.

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