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Songs with staying power

Music | St. Olaf Choir's conductor says the world-famous ensemble is anti-fluff in the 'age of Glee'

Issue: "Effective Compassion," June 16, 2012

WASHINGTON-The St. Olaf Choir, one of America's most famous and critically acclaimed choral ensembles, recently completed its 100th anniversary tour across the country. The 75-voice choir is part of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., a liberal arts college affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

St. Olaf's was one of the pioneers in the American a cappella choir tradition. It also has a legacy of iconic conductors, only four over its 100-year history. The current conductor, Anton Armstrong (right), has led the choir for more than 20 years and was himself part of the ensemble when he was a college student.

One of the group's trademarks of the Armstrong era is that the singers hold hands and sway as the music moves them, so the full choir looks like seagrass moving underwater. It's not choreographed. Made up of undergraduates, the ensemble also memorizes all its music, even the most complex pieces, from Bach motets to African-American spirituals. I caught up with Armstrong after the choir performed in Washington, D.C., to numerous standing ovations.

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What visceral response do you look for from your audience? Sometimes it's the silence that follows a piece. At the very end of the piece there's that moment when you aren't even sure if you want to clap. Maybe [those moments] are even more rewarding than a standing ovation.

We work very hard for perfection, so that the message we have to share is not distracted. If you can eliminate all the distractions of the human mind, the beauty of the music illuminates the text of the message.

What's the power music has that plain words don't? The Bach motet-you have to be a really dead person to not resonate with that piece. It has a way to touch the head and the heart. So it's not just emotionalism or intellectualism, it's the head and the heart.

When my intellect can't understand something-like my mother dealing with dementia-my faith carried me through. We could sing a hymn and my mother could come back to me. I can't invent a pill to cure AIDS, but I know when we sing we can give someone a healing balm that the world can't give them.

The singers all hold hands and sometimes sway. Why? To stand and not move-that's not natural. Watch a great artist, James Galway-the man is all over the place. People need to see the joy, the pathos. ... It's all about revealing the message.

Holding hands is all about trust. They hold hands, there's a trust with each other. The choir is a place [the singers] can feel safe. They have a sense of belonging. You heard people being very vulnerable.

You seem to think it's important to sing old hymns. Contemporary music in the church-a lot of those [songs] aren't going to be around in 30 years. "It Is Well" is going to be around.

I don't want to get in worship wars. I think there's value in music of all styles. But most of the music is coming out of a capitalistic market. It really is. My generation-what we did is put Jesus' words in a bunch of rock 'n' roll music.

We take a very short-sighted sense, moving away from traditional music. "We have to keep people coming in the pews, let's give them what they want, not what they need."

It's a defense for keeping traditional hymnody. The older I get, those texts of those hymns of faith are what I live by.

Does contemporary music give enough attention to the text? The text often is biblically shallow. It's more centered on me than on a sense of community. ... A lot of times it's poorly written and not interesting.

When the choir performed in Washington, there were moments where you revved the engine but most of the time you kept it going 55 miles per hour. Why? It's an emotional pacing of the program. You set up contrasts in terms of style. If everything was up, up, up, there's no time to reflect. Too many highs, it's like having a bunch of sugar. We want the reveling to go on. I'm not about fluff. In the age of Glee, that's what people expect. We don't stand for that.

Before joining this Lutheran school, you taught at Calvin College. What did you glean from your decade there? They talk about the integration of faith and learning, faith and living. That's what I'm trying to do with these young people. That's what I appreciate from the Calvinists, you integrate all of who you are. All of who you are glorifies God.


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