Tuesday, February 03, 2004
- by Mel R. Wilhoit
I can't imagine many choir directors alive who haven't fantasized about conducting the St. Olaf Choir, or at least one like it. For, when it comes to college choirs, St. Olaf is simply the Gold Standard. It just doesn't get much better. And just in case there was any doubt, this amazing choral ensemble demonstrated Monday evening that the reputation which preceded it is well deserved. Well deserved enough to draw a huge crowd to the large Conn Auditorium on the campus of Lee University for the latest in its Presidential Concert Series. And not only did this mass of humanity come out on a cold, rainy Monday evening, they even paid to attend. And that's something few college choirs in the nation can even dream of; most are just happy to have a crowd.
But then, St. Olaf Choir is not your run-of-the-mill college choir. It boasts nearly a century of the finest choral traditions in the country. Its genius is rooted in the Norwegian Lutheran heritage of its founder and first director, F. Melius Christiansen, who directed the choir from its founding in 1912 until his retirement in 1941. Under three subsequent directors, the Northfield, Minnesota, choir has become world famous and set the standard for a style of singing emphasizing a fine choral blend and the European a cappella tradition.
The current director is Anton Armstrong who has molded the choir in his musical image since the early nineties. And what an amazing job he has done. From the opening "Jubilate Deo" by Orlando di Lasso to the final encore, Armstrong led his musical charges through an inspired evening of impeccable choral singing--although singing might be too inadequate a word. Musical expression would come closer, for the concert was not just a treat for the ear but also for the eye. For while most choirs stand relatively placid or sway to pre-choreographed movements, these singers' bodies came alive in a visual polyphony that flowed, bobbed, and pulsated in a thrilling visual expression of the music.
And strangely, it wasn't at all detracting. This was particularly true with the choir's fourth selection, Bach's brilliant motet, "Lobet den Herrn" (BWV 230). Throughout this major polyphonic work, the group possessed an animation that literally captured physically what was transpiring in the music. This amazing performance seemed pretty close to my idea of the definitive performance of this seminal work, leaving even the most skeptical listeners to Bach's choral music with nothing but praise.
While the Bach was accompanied by a small chamber ensemble, the second segment of the program began with the choir singing Mendelssohn's a cappella motet "Justice, O God" in the rich, multi-part style which best characterizes their unique sound. Two contemporary works followed with the substantial "Lucis Creator Optime," by Vytautas Miskinis, demonstrating some glorious antiphonal singing and lush, but dissonant, harmonies. Then a Rutter-like "Be Thou A Smooth Way" with chamber orchestra provided a Romantic setting for the voices. With few exceptions, the first half of the concert was characterized by excellent blend, clear diction, clarity of phrasing, and sensitivity to the text—all accompanied by a sea of highly animated faces.
The post-Intermission half almost got off to a rocky start when a frustrated Armstrong aborted beginning the first piece to let a cell phone ring and ring and ring. After pleading with the audience to silence those digital devils, the second half got on its way with three very modern compositions by contemporary composers Ernani Aguiar, Eric Whitacre, and Marcos Leite. "Little Bird" included all manner of animal noises while "Tres Canto Nativos Dos Indios Krao" adapted melodies of Brazilian Indians. This section was a sterling example of more recent concepts of choral music effectively presented by singers with enough maturity and skill to pull off the novel techniques.
The final section of the program offered music inspired by the African-American gospel tradition. A "Gospel Mass" by Robert Ray attempted to mix the black gospel idiom with classical traditions featuring mass texts from the Ordinary (such as "Kyrie," "Gloria," and "Agnus Dei). Although highly fascinating and superficially appealing, one got the feeling that the limited musical vocabulary of the gospel idiom was simply not rich enough to sustain an extended composition such as a mass—at least not in this case. In addition the vocalists selected to sing the short gospel solos throughout the work weren't even close to pulling off their parts either technically or emotionally.
Considering where the concert was being given, there must have been a hundred people in the audience—steeped in gospel and Contemporary Christian music--who could have rendered the solos far more convincingly. And while the next two selections, "Amazing Grace" and "John the Revelator" were certainly strong, it was clear that these were not the choir's forte. While practically nobody can sing Bach like this choir, there are plenty of rivals for this gospel style. Yet, that by no means diminished a glorious concert that far surpassed anything to be heard from a college choir in a long time.
In an age when choral music in both the school and church is falling upon hard times, St. Olaf and its choral tradition stands as a beacon of hope and a model of excellence for what can be accomplished when everything works just right. Undoubtedly, many in Monday evening's audience are already planning to hear the choir's next concert when it stops in Chattanooga on Tuesday, February 10, for a program at First Baptist Church. In the meantime, I suspect that plenty of local choir directors will be nursing fantasies about conducting a choir--the likes of the Gold Standard.
Mel R. Wilhoit