Although there are many fine higher education institutions training choir directors in the country, two choral powerhouses have remained at the top of the heap for decades. For many years it was an unwritten tradition in the field that students who wanted to be choral conductors and wished to attend school on the East Coast came to Westminster Choir College. In the Midwest, students have been trained at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. These two institutions have maintained a friendly rivalry for the better part of a century while producing choir trainers who formed the backbone of the choral arena throughout the 20th and into the 21st centuries. Rather than view each other as competitors, the Westminster and St. Olaf Choirs have shared their individual choral personalities, and occasionally have turned up in the same neighborhood at the same time.
The Snowmageddon that wasn’t — at the end of January — cancelled the Westminster Choir concert, however the St. Olaf Choir came to Princeton last Monday night as part of a 19-concert tour through the midwest and the east coast. Monday night’s performance in the Princeton University Chapel showed the full house why the St. Olaf Choir has been a drawing card for its resident college for more than a century.
Large choruses can have a difficult time in the expansive University Chapel. Listeners in the front tend to hear mass choral sound more clearly than those in the back of the Chapel, but the sound of the St. Olaf Choir was so well blended in this performance that the overall effect was clean throughout the hall. Conductor Anton Armstrong, only the fourth conductor in the Choir’s more than one hundred year history, is currently celebrating his 25th anniversary directing the choir. Dr. Armstrong approached the repertoire for this concert as a tribute to the legacy of the choir, with the first half of the program focusing on the music of his predecessors.
Bach has been a part of their repertory since the beginning, and Dr. Armstrong used Bach’s fourth motet, Fürchte dich nicht, as an opportunity to show off the St. Olaf Choir’s crisp diction and clean Baroque phrasing. The choir has been renowned for its ability to unfold sound in endless streams of chords, and Robert Stone’s The Lord’s Prayer and William Byrd’s I Will not Leave You Comfortless demonstrated this skill well. Throughout these pieces, the soprano sectional sound in particular was careful and well controlled, as the choir swelled together to close pieces with purely tuned chords.
The music of Felix Mendelssohn and Leonard Bernstein was also part of the performing repertoire of Dr. Armstrong’s predecessors — Kenneth Jennings and the father and son team of F. Melius and Olaf Christiansen. Mendelssohn’s Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe began with a men’s sectional sound reminiscent of the historic Glee Club sound of the past. Mendelssohn composed this work in the tradition of Bach, and the St. Olaf Choir sang with clean texts and solid chords. Kenneth Jennings’ own piece, The Lord is the Everlasting God brought out the well-mixed sound of the choir, while F. Melius Christiansen’s setting of 16th-century composer Philipp Nicolai’s Wake, Awake for Night Is Flying was a clever off-beat arrangement of a conventional text showing clean vocal coloratura and musical effects. In this set of pieces, violist Charles Gray provided elegant obbligato accompaniment. Soprano Chloe Elzey added a rich solo line to Ralph Johnson’s Evening Meal.
Dr. Armstrong devoted the second half of the program to the choir’s next chapter — the legacy of looking forward. Several of the pieces in this part of the program were composed for Dr. Armstrong by colleagues, and these works confirmed St. Olaf’s commitment to discovering the newest in choral music. All of these pieces were written in the past 50 years, and included two premiere performances. One of the most intriguing works was Kim André Arnesen’s Flight Song, composed as a birthday present for Dr. Armstrong. Arnesen writes effectively for chorus, with tunes that stay on the mind, and the choir sang the appealing music well, with a soprano obbligato that topped off the sound like icing. The American Boychoir (of which Dr. Armstrong was a member in his youth) joined the St. Olaf Choir for the St. Olaf Choir’s signature piece, Melius Christiansen’s setting of the 18th-century hymn Beautiful Savior.
During the concert, Dr. Armstrong acknowledged his debt, in inspiration and musical training, to the three choral organizations which had a large presence in the chapel that night: the American Boychoir, Westminster Choir, and St. Olaf Choir. The ongoing collaboration among these three ensembles can only serve to strengthen each one and the choral field as a whole.